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.
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.
Not especially likable, Stevie is characterized by limited intelligence, poor impulse control, and a lifetime of abuse. An old psychological evaluation notes his “failed placements in every group home in southern Illinois.” Abandoned by his mother, he was raised by her husband’s parents—along with a younger sister. Save for his mentally retarded “fiancée,” Tonya, everyone is angry with Stevie about something, especially his aunt (who was herself sexually abused as a child). As Stevie’s case drags on through various appeals, James counsels him to cop a plea. Stevie refuses. “Hell, this ain’t your life,” he pointedly tells his Boswell.
His affect alternating between the doleful and the stricken, James often seems to be wondering what he’s doing on this planet of dogs, trailers, and pickup trucks, a place where nearly everyone is on SSI, the most dynamic form of cultural expression is glossolalia, and the Aryan Nation has a monopoly on political thought. He agonizes over interviewing Stevie’s family members without telling Stevie and tries to establish some honest basis for their relationship. At one point, James treats Stevie and Tonya to a trip to Chicago. The filmmaker’s wife, a social worker who specializes in counseling sex offenders, takes a far less indulgent view toward Stevie, who, not surprisingly, goes to a club and immediately begins self-medicating. “I was the idiot who allowed him to drink and stood by filming as he went out of control,” James muses.
Foreigners often comment on the peculiar American combination of superficial friendliness and profound indifference. Stevie epitomizes a related national trait—the belief in the curative powers of publicity. By this logic, the appearance of therapy and the mouthing of appropriate jargon are identical with therapy itself. James feels badly that he deserted his little brother and wonders, not without reason, if their new, movie-based relationship is a form of exploitation. Repeatedly, the miserable-looking filmmaker assures Stevie (or himself) that he’ll “be there” for him. With a camera in hand?
Less steeped in documentary realness than Stevie and entirely unambivalent in its attitude toward its characters, Peter Sollet’s Raising Victor Vargas is an antidote of sorts. This well-made, cheerful indie—opening “New Directors/New Films” before it goes into commercial release Friday—celebrates Loisaida teenagers as smart and engaging winners.
School is out and romantic intrigue is in. All over the neighborhood, persistent guys are madly scheming to get next to tough, sassy girls. Cute and vain 16-year-old Victor (Victor Rasuk) is pursuing pretty, diffident “Juicy Judy” (Judy Marte). Tender and funny, Raising Victor Vargas is essentially a comedy of manners, complete with incidental Mozart and three simultaneous courtships—not just Victor and Judy but also their younger siblings and best friends. Enjoying her own love affair with the camera: Victor’s perpetually exasperated grandma (Altagracia Guzman).
“Making ‘Victor Vargas’” by Patricia Thomson