Jia Zhangke’s films are all set in remote towns in the Chinese director’s native province of Shanxi, a rugged, landlocked region bordering Inner Mongolia, but there’s hardly a place on earth where they wouldn’t hit close to home. His movies map out Venn diagrams of baffled dislocation and futility: Momentous change intersects with corrosive stasis, and everyone is going nowhere fast. Only 32 himself, Jia gravitates toward the young and the dispossessed—underdogs caught in seismic upheavals beyond their control or even comprehension, muddling through with an inchoate mix of pop love, nervous hope, and fatalist dread.
His first feature, Xiao Wu (1997), functioned equally as a microscopic character study of the pickpocket protagonist and as a macroeconomic portrait of backwater China’s deepening free-trade scars. A generational coming-of-age epic by turns joyful and crushing, the decade-spanning Platform (2000), now at Cinema Village, chronicles an epochal period of transition—the Open Door 1980s—as experienced by the members of a small-town performance troupe. Few films have so exactly captured the implacable passage of time—as a force that sweeps up and leaves behind. Jia’s latest, Unknown Pleasures (opening next week, also at Cinema Village), shifts the setting from his hometown, Fenyang, to even bleaker Datong, a coal-mining city with the drab, dead-end pallor of post-industrial decline.
The director, speaking through a translator, classifies the films as “a trilogy, but with the chronology mixed up. The first one should be Platform, which is about people looking for identity within themselves after a long period of self-isolation. Xiao Wu is about the commodification of China, with all these new products coming in and infiltrating people’s lives. And Unknown Pleasures is about the challenges facing the individual amid massive social change. Interpersonal relationships become something you treasure because they’re so rare.”
Unknown Pleasures arose from a commission to make a short digital-video documentary for the Jeonju film festival in Korea; Jia heard a rumor about disgruntled miners in Datong and decided to shoot there. “At first I focused on the mines,” he says, “but then I started looking at public places like theaters, discos, karaoke clubs, bus stops, and felt a kind of melancholic sentiment about these spaces.” The resulting film derives much of its power from the forlorn locations—generally some combination of disused, cavernous, derelict, and under construction. As Yu Lik Wai, the Hong Kong-born, Beijing-based cinematographer of Jia’s films, puts it: “It was important to show the city itself as a character, every space with a certain personality.”
Jia says he was drawn to the taciturn young adults he encountered in Datong: “These kids almost never spoke. You start to wonder what is it about the place that makes them so alienated, and then you realize how much pressure they’re under. Often it has to do with unemployment—someone in the family is laid off, and that causes a chain reaction. There’s the whole issue of self-respect, since the workers, the parents of these kids, feel as if they’ve been abandoned.”
Like Platform, Unknown Pleasures is an impacted love story in which two couples enact the games of courtship with brittle defensiveness. Lank-haired Xiao Ji, who’s apparently cribbed his tough-guy poses from his bootlegged DVDs, falls hard for aloof singer-dancer Qiao Qiao; morose Bin Bin, who can’t even successfully enlist for the army, knows his days are numbered with the studious Yuan Yuan. Jia’s films all feature romantic situations in which the characters are tentative to the point of paralysis. “Perhaps it has to do with personal experience,” he says. “It’s also been pointed out to me that, in all three films, a female character suddenly disappears. I think this indecisiveness says something about my view of romance.”
The detached vocabulary of master-shot tableaux in Platform (the camera is stationary for the first half) gives way in Unknown Pleasures to prowling and panning, though Jia, who has often cited Hou Hsiao-hsien as an influence, continues to structure his detailed naturalism around long takes. “I feel strongly about maintaining a unity of time and space, and maintaining an unbroken relationship between the audience and the characters,” he says. “Even those long scenes where nothing is happening and it seems like everything has stopped—even those are important. It’s possible that nothing at all happens over a long period of time; it’s also possible that a lot of things are happening simultaneously in the same space, and I love that juxtaposition.”
Shooting with compact cameras and a small crew, as Jia and Yu did on the 16mm Xiao Wu, allowed an improvisational freedom. “If we came across a space that looked interesting,” Jia says, “we’d just shoot, and then think of ways that the story could be molded to fit.” After stumbling upon the half-built Datong-Beijing highway, Jia transposed a number of scenes to the looming thoroughfare, a symbol of connection as illusory as the ads for the outside world that flood in daily.
“There’s a huge disparity between the life these young people are living and the life coming in through the media,” Jia says. “In Platform, we have a group of people searching for a way out of a closed society. Here we have an open society in which people are very lost.” Throughout Unknown Pleasures, TV monitors flicker with news of China’s WTO entry, Beijing’s successful Olympic bid, the American-Chinese plane collision. But as Platform brilliantly demonstrated, for young people, nothing defines a period more indelibly than the hit single of the moment. Unknown Pleasures, in one heartbreaking karaoke scene and in the extraordinary final shot, shows that Jia understands better than any other contemporary filmmaker the talismanic significance a pop song can accrue.
Yu came up with the film’s English title while translating notes that Jia had written for his Datong documentary: “Zhangke had a sentence about how he thought it was a place with a lot of sadness but also undefined pleasures and compulsions, and I immediately thought of the Joy Division album.” (Yu’s own directorial debut, a homesick ballad about mainlanders adrift in Hong Kong, was titled Love Will Tear Us Apart.) Jia says he’s been a pop fan since before it was legal. “My earliest impression of outside culture is listening to the songs of [Taiwanese singer] Teresa Teng on the radio,” he says. “It’s just like you see portrayed in Platform, secretly listening to the Taiwanese radio stations.” As the floodgates opened, he graduated to break dancing (the propaganda-performing collective in Platform morphs into the All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band) and succumbed to the “philosophy fever” of the mid ’80s, devouring previously unavailable translations of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Freud. His early movie loves (besides Breakin’) were De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, Hou’s The Boys From Fengkuei, and Bresson’s A Man Escaped—films that seem to be the very building blocks of his humanist-spiritual realism.
Shot without Film Bureau permission, Jia’s movies still cannot be screened in China. At one point in Unknown Pleasures, someone tries without success to buy bootlegs of Xiao Wu and Platform; Jia says the situation is slightly better in reality. “You can actually get VCDs. You can get bootlegs even of my student films. I travel to universities and clubs and screen my films on video. That’s the only way to promote them in China.” His dual local runs this month notwithstanding, one of the most important directors working today remains one of the most underseen.