"We don't have a train in Fenyang," says Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke with a laugh. "You have to take the bus and switch. It's about a 10-or 12-hour ride from Beijing." Jia is talking about his hometown and favorite cinematic subject, a small city in the central Chinese province of Shanxi. Fenyang is a kind of Anytown, PRC, tied to its agrarian roots, steeped in Maoist socialism, and increasingly distracted from both by the attractions of free-market capitalism. Jia's first two films, Xiao Wu and Platform, were both shot there, and his third will start filming there this summer.
Born in 1971, Jia didn't leave his hometown until he entered the prestigious Beijing Film Academy in 1993, where he studied not directing but film theory. Xiao Wu took only 21 days to film, starred entirely nonprofessional actors, and garnered the attention of Japanese icon Takeshi Kitano. "Xiao Wu described a society in a period of transition, and also how people's attitudes are affected by social change," Jia explains. "Japan has had a similar experience of transition, so many Japanese people who have seen it have been very affected by it. That's how Takeshi became involved with my Platform project."
For Platform, an epic about a song-and-dance troupe from Fenyang that took over a year to film, Jia again used nonpro actorsfriends and neighbors from his youth. "From a commercial standpoint, the film is riddled with problems," Jia concedes. "But my producers, the Japanese company and the Hong Kong company, were both very supportive." Jia has had to compromise, however, on Platform's length. His producers convinced him to make a 150-minute cut of the film, dubbed the "distributor's version" for festivals and video release. The screening that closes the Walter Reade's "Urban Generation" series may be your last chance to catch the entire 198-minute director's cut.
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