Jia Zhangke is one of the great contemporary filmmakers; no argument to that effect needs to be made in a film about him. Walter Salles happily agrees. The Brazilian director’s new documentary Jia Zhangke, a Guy From Fenyang takes for granted, justly, its subject’s global renown, and it squanders no time on introductions.
This is portraiture for the Zhangke-acquainted. Admirers will find much of interest here, as Salles, scrupulously self-effacing, affords Jia the latitude to think and talk at his leisure — to speak at length, and candidly, about his work and what informs it. Jia strolls through his native Fenyang, in China’s Shanxi province — the setting of many of his features — and holds forth on his childhood, his family history, his early years directing, and the turbulence suffered by the country under (and after) Mao.
The political dimension of Jia’s films may have eluded a Western audience; here much is clarified, including — most edifyingly for this reviewer — the importance of pop music at a time when it was only recently allowed. And so the tour of the homeland continues. Jia reunites with favored collaborators, chats amicably with the locals, visits neighborhoods and landmarks familiar from his films. Meanwhile Salles augments the profile with intervals of generous citation: long passages from Xiao Wu, Platform, and A Touch of Sin will be well-known to Jia aficionados, but with excerpts so good it’s difficult to complain.
It’s hardly the fault of Salles that the film is only arriving in theaters two years after it was made. But it’s too bad Mountains May Depart is missing from the career survey — Jia’s latest picture would have fit right in.
Jia Zhangke, a Guy From Fenyang
Directed by Walter Salles
Opens May 27, Anthology Film Archives