Fittingly, cinema’s foremost poet of globalization and its discontents has had to increase his own productivity in recent years. “I was forced to because of the speed of development in China,” says Jia Zhangke, 37, an outspoken critic of the country’s current policies. “Things are changing so fast, I had to change the pace of my filmmaking to keep up.”
Following a quartet of beautifully constructed, profoundly astute examinations of a changing China made from 1997 to 2004 (Pickpocket, Platform, Unknown Pleasures, and World), the last couple of years have seen a surge of new work from the Beijing-based director. Two documentaries about artists in China, Dong and Useless, recently impressed on the festival circuit, while his lyrical narrative Still Life (opening at the IFC Center this week) was the surprise Best Picture winner at Venice in 2006.
All three films are linked—thematically, in their trenchant view of China’s blind economic expansion, but also stylistically, in their gorgeous landscape and portrait photography, and blurring between fiction and documentary. Still Life, specifically, grew out of the making of Dong, which looks at prominent figurative artist Liu Xiaodong and his paintings of local people affected by China’s massive Three Gorges Dam project (the world’s largest hydroelectric enterprise by half).
“I had no plan to make Still Life,” says Jia. “But there are so many things happening during the Three Gorges Dam project, it warranted another film.”
Reportedly displacing close to two million people and moving 13 full-sized cities, the Three Gorges Dam epitomizes the tragic costs of China’s growth (and also makes a cameo as an example of environmentally unsound industry in Jennifer Baichwal’s recent documentary Manufactured Landscapes). Still Life follows two unrelated stories of a man and woman returning to the affected area to search for long-lost loved ones. In a wry exchange typical of Jia, the coal-miner protagonist gets a ride to his old (now flooded) address from a peroxide-haired young motorcyclist, who says: “That little island out there, that was your street.”
Jia had never visited the Three Gorges region before. Prior to the controversial dam, the area was noted for its scenic vistas and—apropos of Jia’s capitalist concerns—its image graces the back of the 10-yuan note. “But after getting there,” he says, “I realized that this is a 2,000-year-old city that just vanished overnight. And I was really shocked at the rapid destruction of these places. It was as if it [was hit by] an alien invasion or nuclear fallout.” (Jia makes explicit the alien metaphor—UFOs make an occasional appearance in the landscape.)
“There is something very unnatural about the place,” he explains, both in its mythic quality—the area is often depicted in Chinese art with numinous clouds (which Jia added digitally to the HD-video film)—and also in its surreal mountains of rubble. “I’m trying to tease out all the contradictions and conflicts in China,” he explains.
And the contradictions are many. The fact that Chinese workers make a living by destroying their own towns is ironic enough, but Jia cinematographer Yu Lik-wai (in both Dong and Still Life) photographs these strong, shirtless laborers hammering away at half- demolished buildings in exquisitely framed compositions. “I felt that there’s this strength and life force which is very admirable,” says Jia of the workers. “And even with a pile of ashes, you’re not sure whether it’s the site of destruction or a phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Still Life, Dong, and Useless—a portrait of maverick fashion designer Ma Ke and China’s evolving clothing industry—also examine obsolescence and the fading ways of a handmade life (most affectingly in Useless, with its depiction of a small-town tailor who can’t find employment and so must work in the coal mines). Jia is in the planning stages of a third documentary, about Chinese architects building a city from scratch on top of empty grasslands in inner Mongolia. “Since China has become very consumerist and artists and intellectuals have been marginalized,” Jia said recently, discussing his reasons for making the nonfiction trilogy, “I want to make their voices be heard again.”
Next month, Jia begins shooting a new dramatic project, 24 City, which will continue to reflect on the way China’s breakneck pursuit of the future steamrolls its past. Spanning 50 years, the story chronicles the lives of workers in a factory that will be demolished to make way for a skyscraper. “And for those who live in the skyscraper, they will have no memory of what was there before,” he explains.
“It’s almost like China is eating its tail. It’s going forward, but what it gets in return is disproportionate to what it loses.”