New Dawn Fades

The Young and the Breathless

Milieu is everything in the films of Jia Zhangke. Writer-director of three independent features, the 32-year-old Jia has placed himself at the forefront of Chinese cinema—literally. His assured, almost ethnographic movies frame the bewildering social flux of contemporary China, a world he typically populates with disaffected young people, small-time hustlers, layabouts, and would-be entertainers.

Jia was born in central China and all of his features have been set in his native Shanxi province. The 1997 Xiao Wu (also known, in tribute to Robert Bresson, as Pickpocket) was a remarkable, semi-documentary immersion in backwater urban lowlife; his 2000 Platform, a movie much promoted by the Voice, used the evolution of a dramatic troupe to offer a panoramic long view of China's transformation from Maoist austerity to free-market confusion. The more overtly pop, impressionistic, and improvisational Unknown Pleasures, one of the strongest inclusions in the last New York Film Festival, may be Jia's most concentrated evocation of contemporary China's spiritual malaise.

Generically, Unknown Pleasures is a youth film. Two unemployed boys, Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong), vegetate in the ugly provincial city of Datong—hanging around a community recreation center with the feel of a derelict factory, making occasional trips to cave-like discos, dank noodle houses, and tawdry video parlors. Bin Bin seems addicted to a cartoon version of The Monkey King, which he watches on video over and over again with his studious girlfriend, as if to forestall her leaving him; brash Xiao Ji meanwhile pursues Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao, one of the principals in Platform), a pretty dancer with a gangster-like "agent"—her former high school gym teacher.

Free of all constraints: Wu Qiong and Zhao Tao in Unknown Pleasures
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Free of all constraints: Wu Qiong and Zhao Tao in Unknown Pleasures

Details

Unknown Pleasures
Written and directed by Jia Zhangke
New Yorker
Opens March 26, at Cinema Village

Stevie
Directed by Steve James
Lions Gate
Opens March 28, at Film Forum

Raising Victor Vargas
Written and directed by Peter Sollett
Samuel Goldwyn/Fireworks
March 26, at Alice Tully Hall
March 27, at the Walter Reade
Opens March 28

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Unknown Pleasures takes its Chinese title (which translates as "Free of All Constraints") from a poem by the fourth century B.C. Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi that became a pop hit in 2001. It's sung twice in the film—once by Qiao Qiao as part of her performance with the Mongolian King Liquor troupe. The movie's English title, suggested by Jia's regular cinematographer Yu Lik Wai, can be understood in two ways: Hitherto unknown pleasures are everywhere in evidence, yet satisfaction itself is beyond reach. Everything is crowded and shabby, half built or despoiled. Society seems divided into the mercenary winners and the depressed losers. Jia's characters are mainly the latter, and what's remarkable about his filmmaking is how vividly they are represented. Set against Datong's gritty backdrop, Xiao Ji and Qiao Qiao have created equally stylized facades. He has the peekaboo bangs and flame-bedecked shirt of an anime hero; she wears a Cleopatra wig and favors a wardrobe of turquoise spandex.

Explicitly topical as well as self-referential, Unknown Pleasures acknowledges China's ambiguous role in the global village, as well as our own. (At one point an explosion is heard and Bin Bin starts: "Shit, are the Americans bombing?") The action is set in the spring of 2001. Television regularly transmits reports on the downed U.S. plane and, only moments after the TV announces that Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics, the sky erupts with (low tech) fireworks. A secondary character returns from jail asking for DVDs including those by Jia. Xiao Ji is haunted by Quentin Tarantino, sage from a land somewhere beyond fabulous. He recounts a scene from Pulp Fiction to impress Qiao Qiao. At one point, Xiao Ji stares at a worn dollar bill, wondering how much it could possibly be worth. (Later, when Qiao Qiao tells him that she's "too expensive" for him, he shows her his dollar.)

There's a comical edge to Jia's losers that only imbues them with greater pathos. Luckless Bin Bin, whose mother is a dedicated member of the Falun Gong sect, is even rejected by the army. The more boastful Xiao Ji is simply maladroit (having taken a room with Qiao Qiao, he has difficulty turning on a tap; his motorbike is consistently difficult to start). In the end, the two friends join forces for an act of ridiculous romantic despair—which cannily suppresses even the promised cinematic pleasure. Then, in a final shot comparable to the majestically downbeat "real time" closer in Platform, hapless Bin Bin entertains us with a song.

Shot in digital video, Unknown Pleasures teems with visual interest. Jia uses the format to film all manner of public places. Yu's camera hunkers down in restaurant booths and sidles into automobile backseats, frequently observing the characters in real time. Drawing on Jia's influences Robert Bresson and Hou Hsiao-hsien, Unknown Pleasures suggests a coolly formalist reinvention of neorealism. The film is both distanced and immediate—a fiction with the force of documentary.


Closer to home in its representation of alienated youth, Steve James's two-hour-and-20-minute verité Stevie concerns the filmmaker's relationship to a disadvantaged 11-year-old kid whom he mentored as a "big brother" while attending graduate school in downstate Illinois. James, a member of the team responsible for the epic documentary Hoop Dreams, describes little Stevie Fielding as having been "an accident waiting to happen." Indeed, when we first encounter grown-up Stevie, grizzled and tattooed, he is hobbling toward the camera on crutches.

No getting around it, Stevie is one painful movie. James, who appears frequently on camera, always seems to be suffering acute gastritis. Whether the pain is warranted is something else. A dozen or more years after they last saw each other, the filmmaker drops in on his erstwhile "little brother." But it is only two years later, after he discovers Stevie in jail for sexually assaulting an eight-year-old niece, that James apparently recognizes a potential movie and seriously reinvolves—or perhaps we should say "reinvests"—himself in the morass of Stevie's life.

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