Jia Zhangke Gets His Closeup on Criterion

A full retrospective of the Chinese auteur’s works, now available

Unless you attend the international film festival circuit or want to purchase physical copies of his movies, it’s been challenging to follow Jia Zhangke’s cinematic output. That is, until this month, when Criterion Channel released China Lost and Found: Eight Movies by Jia Zhangke. The films span Jia’s career from Xiao Wu, his debut in 1997, to 2015’s Mountains May Depart (two more recent films, Ash is Purest White, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue are currently streaming on MUBI).

What are you in for with Jia’s work? Here’s an example from the opening of 2013 release, A Touch of Sin: 

A man wearing a dirty Chicago Bulls knit beanie whips out a pistol and methodically guns down three would-be robbers. The gunman leaves his victims in the chalky dust on a road in the middle of a parched, dirty landscape. It looks only slightly more hospitable than the surface of the Moon, but it’s a place in China where people must live their lives. Seconds later, just up the road, an overturned tomato truck suddenly explodes. A brooding bear of a man, with a face like a rough-hewn block of wood, flinches from the fireball, discards a half-eaten tomato, and heads to a dilapidated diner for a lunch of garlic and stewed vegetables. A waitress fondly caresses his face. Soon, he’ll seek bloody vengeance, like an underdog hero from a traditional wuxia tale.

A Touch of Sin, which combines kitchen-sink realism with graphic violence, features four loosely-connected stories based on true events widely reported in China over the previous decade. The vignettes explore the corruption, inequality and general atomization that Chinese society had been experiencing during the country’s rapid–and radical–economic transformation that is still going on to this day.

If the brutal realism of A Touch of Sin was your first introduction to Jia, the current selection of his films on off on Criterion Channel may both live up to and confound your expectations. As expected, Still Life, released in 2006, combines documentary-level detail of an obscure river town’s slow, methodical demolition as part of a dam megaproject. However, at the same time, the film is a meditation on fragmenting human and family bonds of a rapacious, almost lawless China undergoing ruthless economic change. The perplexing and unexplained appearance of animated U.F.O.s, and a building that blasts off like a rocket ship disrupts the film’s social realism. Jia combines hyper-realism with fantasy in his other movies, too.

Brief indulgences in whimsy excepted, social commentary, rather than the social activism of A Touch of Sin, seems to be what Jia is mostly interested in exploring. Husbands travel up and down the Yangtze River in search of lost wives and missing children, while wives search for husbands who have disappeared and then resurfaced elsewhere, with new cash, new identities, and new women. Still Life is notable because Jia incorporates real, crumbling locales and a cast of real locals, untrained as actors, into the film.

However meditative Jia’s films may be, he often portrays contemporary China in a less-than-ideal light. It’s hard to imagine how Jia’s seeming implicit criticism could even be possible in a country that limits  and even attacks free expression.

“Chinese filmmakers have always had to negotiate with authority at different levels, regardless of whether their films were made with approval or not,” says Brian Hioe. Hioe, a native New Yorker and who is now based in Taipei, is the founding editor at New Bloom, an online magazine covering politics and youth culture in Taiwan and Asia.

Jia has spent the early part of career producing films in a legal grey area. Like some of his “Sixth Generation” peers, Jia, born in 1970, actually started out as an indi  underground filmmaker, producing films that the Chinese government didn’t officially approve.

“Instead of seeking domestic release for their films, [Sixth Generation filmmakers] were oftentimes aiming for legitimacy on the international film festival circuit rather than focusing on appeals to the Chinese domestic market,” says Hioe. “Such filmmakers still had to avoid crossing ‘red lines’ for fear of political retribution.”

The World, from 2004, was Jia’s first film officially approved by government censors. The film follows the lives of twenty-something performers and employees–all uprooted from someplace else in China–of a suburban Beijing theme park that reproduces scale versions of famous attractions from around the world, including the Vatican, London Bridge, and New York’s World Trade Center (“The Twin Towers were bombed on September 11, 2001,” says a security guard to his hayseed cousin, an unskilled migrant freshly arrived in the big city. “We still have them.”)

The characters enjoy a relatively affluent life in Beijing, itself a relatively clean and orderly city compared to other locales in many of Jia’s films. At the same time, these twenty-somethings are metaphorically trapped in an absurdist, meaningless life in the theme park, supposedly Jia’s metaphor in 2004 for China’s present and future trajectory. A group of Russian performers, their passports confiscated, are literally trapped, resorting to prostitution to earn just a little more money to somehow buy their way back home.

For a film approved by censors, it’s not an especially flattering portrait of China in 2004, which was enjoying newfound prosperity and wealth.

“It’s hard to know to what extent Jia’s films align with official thinking or not, or to what extent his films simply reflect the times in China,” says Hioe, who speculates that it’s a win for Chinese soft power when Jia and other filmmakers win awards in international film festivals.

24 City, also included in the Criterion Channel release, has also received critical international acclaim that borders on breathlessness (“So meaningfully framed that it could have been shot by Andy Warhol,” according to the Village Voice at the time). Jia employs a similar blend of fiction and fact with this quasi-documentary, combining actors with actual past employees of a shuttered former state-owned munitions plant that has been turned into a real estate development. For casual viewers, however, this long rumination on the changes, challenges, and dislocations of China since the Communist victory in 1949 may be more “eat your broccoli” than riveting entertainment.

However, there]s enough variety in Criterion Channel’s China Lost and Found Jia Zhangke feature streaming right now to appeal to most audiences. If nothing else, the eight films in the collection document the rapid transformation China has undergone over the past 25 years, which makes for fascinating viewing.

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Nevin Thompson

Nevin Thompson is Japan News Editor of Global Voices, an international community of writers, journalists, and digital activists who translate and report on what is being said online around the world.

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