Jia Zhangke


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Zhang-Ke Jia (China, 1970) filmed Xiao Wu/ The Pickpocket (1997) in a neorealist style, keen on showing the social changes among ordinary people. That theme was amplified in the three-hour multi-voice saga Zhantai/ Platform (2000). filmed in long, static takes which avoid close-ups. The characters are not fully analyzed, but rather considered as a group. The story is not about the individual lives but about the political, social, economic, and cultural transformation of China since the death of Mao in 1976 (the title of the film is a popular song of the era). The first half is set in a colorless, proto-industrial landscape of crumbling buildings, deserted streets and bare rooms with little or no furniture (sometimes only the ubiquitous Mao portrait). The characters try to escape this prison (the poor boring province) through their wandering. Their yearning is also represented by the way they stare at the mountains and by the way they rejoice at the sight of a train. Most of them will return to their hometown, although a much different place. The Cultural Revolution has just ended with Mao's death. the players mime a steam train as it chugs along towards Chairman Mao's birthplace of Shaoshan In a ramshackle theater, illuminated by a just one light bulb, a troupe of young actors perform a skit about a train ride to Mao's hometown. One of them, the spectacled Cui Minliang, proudly claims to be an "arts workers", although his old-fashioned father warns him that he looks like a capitalist. The young men and women are members of the Peasant Culture Group that performs musical plays around their rural region. The songs are mostly patriotic and the plots are pure propaganda. The troupe rides in the back of an industrial truck or in an old tour bus, bringing their shows to the countryside that surroundes their provincial town. The boys wear pants that have reportedly become fashionable in the cities (pants sewn by their mothers, not bought in department stores that don't exist in this town). To avoid being seen by their conservative parents, Minliang meets her girlfriend Ruijuan at the battlements of the town, which is also the ancient gate (a mini-version of the Great Wall). The most emancipated of the girls, Zhong Ping, has her hair done in what she thinks is a fashionable style only to be mocked that now she looks like a Spanish flamenco dancer (and we see a scene in which she, dressed like a flamenco queen, dances under a portrait of Mao). Meanwhile, historical events take place: a loudspeaker announces that Liu has been rehabilitated; communists march in the street chanting in favor of the one-child policy; etc. Zhong is home alone when her best friend Ruijuan comes to visit. Ruijuan is more interested in sewing than in modern manners, but Zhong corrupts her: Zhong offers her a cigarette and accents her eyebrows with make-up. They discuss a boy, Lai, who likes either of them, and they are not sure whom. Ruijuan thinks that Zhong is making herself beautiful to seduce Minliang's friend Zhang Jun. The lovers argue on the ancient battlements that surround their hometown or stand in vast, empty winter fields Minliang and Ruijuan meet again at the battlements. He wants to know whether he can call her his girlfriend in public, but she is ambivalent. (The two take turns at standing in front of the camera when they talk and hiding behind a wall when the other one talks). Zhang sends a postcard to Minliang from the big city. Zhang returns with a tape player and plays loud music in the street. His friends surround him, curious to see how the tape player operates. Later they party in a house, dancing in the Western style. A family buys a washing machine and carries it in a pushcart. Ruijuan tells Minliang that they are not a good match and that her father doesn't like him. He is upset that it took her so long to make up her mind. She remains alone in the battlement, listening to the loudspeaker that announces the departure of a bus. Minliang and his brother Wanlin witness an argument between their parents after their mother catches their father with an expensive present for another woman. His father tells Minliang to shut up but Minliang openly rebels because he is now 24. The chief and ideologue of the troupe helps Zhang and Zhong when she gets pregnant. She is scared of getting an abortion, but Zhang forces her. The loudspeakers announce that Deng Xiaoping has seized power and launched his capitalist reforms. The troupe meets to discuss privatization. A tractor carries the troupe to a remote village where they enter followed by a crowd of screaming children. In town Mingliang meets a cousin, Sanming. They haven't seen each other in a long time and have virtually nothing to talk about because Sanming is a simple, illiterate peasant. Mingliang visits his parents and learns that the only jobs there are in agriculture and mining, and they don't pay well: people are almost starving, and electricity is a luxury. Sanming's sister is in school, and his parents are struggling to pay for her education, but everybody agrees that a degree will help her get away from poverty. Mingliang and Ruijuan climb to a place where they can enjoy the views of the mountains. And she feels like screaming. In front of an ecstatic crowd assembled in the main square an official from the Communist Party announces that from now one the town will have electricity every night. When the lights go on, the troupe begins their performance. The following day the troupe is leaving town on the same tractor. Minliang recognizes his cousin walking along the road and offers him a ride, but Sanming prefers to take a steep trail up the mountain and continues alone. During another visit to the mining town Minliang helps his cousin read the contract that a privatized mine offers: a miserable salary and a pitiful sum in case of accident. When Minliang's troupe is leaving town, Sanming runs after the truck and gives Minliang a message for his sister: go to university and never come back again. Later they get stuck in the countryside just when a train is coming: they run like little children towards the long bridge to admire the train passing by, screaming and waving. Zhang and Zhong spend a vacation in a hotel, but are arrested because it is illegal for unmarried couples to have sex. They are dispatched back to their hometown. Now that private enterprise is encouraged by the government, Minliang's family opens a restaurant. They invite Sanming's sister to dinner and Minliang gives her money (twice what Sanming gave him for her) to continue her studies. The chief of the troupe is angry because Zhong, who is the lead singer, has disappeared. Zhang searches in vain for her. Zhong's father doesn't know either. Zhang and Minliang get drunk. The streets of the town are finally being paved. The radio broadcasts Western-style pop songs. Town officials ride on motorcycles. And the troupe has morphed into the All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band, playing loud thumping dance music in front of wild audiences, but the concert takes place under a circus tent and the electricity is provided by a sputtering generator. Now there are fashion boutiques even in small towns, and colorful clothes literally change the looks of the towns; but there are also violent gangs and erotic shows. The band keeps touring the countryside, with new members replacing the original ones. Twin sisters become the main attraction. The tour continues through a desolate countryside all the way to the border with Mongolia, as if they deliberately moved away from the urban world. Eventually, they return on the same derelict truck to the hometown. Minliang learns that his father has opened a shop elsewhere and left his mother. Minliang and Zhang meet Ruijuan, who has become a tax collector and wears a uniform. Ruijuan is resentful towards her old friend Zhong, who left without telling anybody where she was going. In the last scene Ruijuan is holding a baby in front of her new kitchen stove, while a man, presumably her husband (who doesn't seem to be Minliang), is falling asleep on the couch.

Unknown Pleasures (2002) was again devoted to the transformation of China from a rural country to a roaring economic powerhorse.

Shijie/ The World (2004) is a plain domestic story but turned into a surreal tale because of the setting: the action takes place against the backdrop of a huge park outside Beijing that hosts life-scale replicas of famous world monuments (the Eiffel Tower, the London Bridge, Manhattan's skyline with the World Trade Center in the foreground, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal, the pyramids and the Sphinx of Giza, Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, Piazza San Marco in Venice, etc). The protagonists are two provincial souls catapulted into Beijing's aspiring cosmopolitanism, but this cosmopolitanism is as fake as is their integration into it. The visitors of the park live into a virtual reality, and so do the two protagonists transplanted into the capital city. Cartoons show the Freudian subconscious of the protagonists as well as text messages on cell-phones.

The film begins with a chaotic scene in the backstage rooms where female dancers are getting ready. They perform in "World Park", an amusement park just outside Beijing that recreates the world's most famous attractions so that you can "see the world without leaving Beijing" as it is advertised. One of these girls, Tao, is the girlfriend of a security guard, Taisheng, and they both hail from the countryside. One day Tao's ex boyfriend shows up. He has traveled from their home town and now has a passport to emigrate to Mongolia. The boyfriend joins them while they are chatting and insists on giving him a ride to the train station. Back in the overcrowded dorm where they live, Taisheng asks Tao to prove that she has really forgotten about her old sweetheart by having sex with him, Taisheng, but she, despite her age, is determined to remain a virgin. Later they make peace and pose for a video that projects them on the Tour Eiffel. Meanwhile, Russian dancers have arrived to the park. A shady intermediary has taken their passports claiming that it is for their security (but de facto keeping them prisoners in China for the rest of their lives). One of these Russians is the kind Anna, who only speaks Russian but nonetheless becomes friend with Tao. Some friends of Taisheng from his hometown have moved to Beijing and he shows them around the World. They bring news of the simple life back home and hope to find better jobs in Beijing. Both Sanming, the elder brother, and "Little Sister", the younger brother, are construction workers. Sanlai reminds Taisheng that he has already lived half of his life and needs to think about having children. Taisheng's best friend is his fellow security guard, Erxiao. Taisheng tries to touch Tao while she is impersonating a flight attending inside the cockpit of a historical airplane, but she rejects him as usual. We see a cartoon of Tao as a flight attendant flying over the city. Taisheng visits Song, a shady businessman who needs a second identity card. Taisheng knows how to get it to him. The businessman is nice to a friend, Bing, who is always broke because of gambling and women. The businessman asks Taisheng to escort Bing's sister to their hometown. That's how Taisheng gets to spend a day with Qun on a long bus ride. Qun does not waste time: she invites Taisheng to visit her, and we see a Freudian cartoon of his lusty subconscious. She is the supervisor of a textile sweatshop. She tells Taisheng that her husband fled China eight years earlier and now (one of the only six who survived the trip) he lives in France. She has applied for a visa to finally go and rejoin him. One of Tao's coworkers and best friends is Wei, who is tormented by the most jealous of boyfriends, Niu, whose paranoia looks positively dangerous. A rich man hits on Tao at a fancy karaoke bar, but Tao is not even remotely interested. In the same club Tao meets Anna, who is now working there and wearing a sexy red dress. Anna still doesn't speak Chinese, but Tao easily understands that Anna has become a prostitute. Tao stares at her speechless and then both start crying. Taisheng is happy to learn that the brothers from his hometown have found jobs as construction workers. He introduces Tao to them. Watching a plane in the sky, "Little Sister" wonders aloud who flies on planes. Tao confesses that she doesn't know anybody who has been on an airplane. Apparently after finally having sex with him, Tao promises to kill Tasheng if he ever cheats on her. Erxiao steals money from the purses of the dancers in the backstage rooms while they are performing on stage. Niu, the jealous boyfriend, is still persecuting his girlfriend Wei. When, fed up with his jealousy, she tells him that she wants to break up, he calmly sets fire to his jacket in front of her. The police found out about Erxiao's thefts. When he hears about it, Taisheng slaps him in the face. Qun finally gets her visa to Europe. Taisheng is celebrating with her when he gets a phone call: "Little Sister", trying to make more money by working the night shift, has been seriously injured in an accident at the construction site and is in terminal conditions at the hospital. Taisheng gets mad at Little Sister's elder brother Sanlai. The kid wants to say something to Taisheng but can't talk, so Taisheng gives him a piece of paper. Taisheng then shows the message to Little Sister's elder brother, who reads it and breaks down in tears. We see the note: it is simply a list of all the debts that he has to pay, small amounts. The girls are dressed in Japanese costumes and working at the Japanese temple of the park. Wei announces to the other girls that she is getting married with Niu. The news makes Tao pensive: she can feel that something is wrong with Taisheng. Tao meets Sanlai's folks at the train station and Taisheng helps Sanlai collect the money from the construction company, compensation for the deadly accident. The director of the troupe announces that a huge New Year's Even show will be broadcast from World Park, and that Tao's friend Youyou has been promoted to supervisor. Qun has packed her luggage and Taisheng is bidding her farewell. Later Tao asks Taisheng to marry her, but he doesn't seem to answer. At Wei's wedding celebration Tao grabs Taisheng's cell phone and sees a romantic message from Qun. Tao understands that Taisheng has been cheating on her with Qun. Taisheng loses any trace of her, but eventually realizes that she is house-sitting for Wei during her honeymoon. He visits her and we will never know what happens: the following morning neighbors find the two lovers dead, intoxicated by gas. (Tao had promised to kill him if he ever cheated on her). The screen goes black. Taisheng asks whether they are dead and Tao replies that it is just the beginning.

Sanxia Haoren/ Still Life (2006) is an odyssey of sorts set in the wasteland of a region where the government has decided to demolish entire villages to make room for the Three Gorges Dam. The soundtrack of the film is basically the constant sounds of demolition and traffic. Among the ruins two individuals try to reconstruct ordinary lives by reuniting with missing spouses after a long hiatus. The landscape is almost the negation of the idyllic natural landscape of traditional Chinese painting, and it is also the negation, in another dimension, of Mao's industrialized China. The set of the film is a dying city. It is the stage for the psychological wasteland of destitute lives: the kid who beats up the victims of the demolition program, the woman who prostitutes herself in front of her husband, the woman who is held as a slave to pay for her brother's debt. There are visual metaphors that appear suddenly and last only a few seconds, like the building that takes off like the spaceship in a science-fiction film, or the archeologist (perhaps the only positive character, and coincidentally the one who is interested in the ancient past) or the acrobat at the end of the film. They might be satire rather than metaphysics, as the one director has to be careful not to criticize the authorities too much. By the same token, one of the main narrative lines is barely hinted at (the collusion between gangsters, contractors and officials to "convince" residents to move out of their buildings quickly: the contractors need to maximize their profit and the officials need to comply with the party's timetable). There is no beauty in this film. Everything is ugly: both the landscape, the society and the individual stories. Rossellini's postwar films might have been an inspiration, but Zhangke's characters are symbols of a different kind of destruction, which is more cultural than physical. It also rains very often.

The camera slowly surveys the people who are traveling on a crowded boat, stopping when it reaches a taciturn middle-aged man. When they disembark, they are forced to watch the show of a magical troupe and forced to pay for it. The taciturn man has no money. He hires a motorcyclist to take him to an address that he has written on an old postcard. The motorcyclist takes him to a place by the river from which he can see the top of a submerged island: the dam project is flooding all the villages, little by little, and the village that was on that island is already gone. He is looking for his wife. His wife's sister cannot help either. He knows that she works on a boat and might come back any time to the village, but doesn't know when. His wife's brother is hostile, stating that she is not his wife, at least so decided the police.
Han takes a room in a humble hotel and finds a job while he waits for the woman to return. The men there work either in demolition jobs or are thugs organized in squads to convince residents to leave the buildings that have to be demolished. Han befriends a kid who likes to watch foreign movies with lots of shooting and belongs to one of such squads. Life among the ruins is miserable. There is a brothel in a semi-demolished building. One of the women who prostitute themselves is the wife of a worker who lost an arm: she does so in the house where she lives with him, and with his consent. Han hasn't seen his wife in 16 years and is particularly anxious to hear about his daughter. The truth surfaces that Han, a coal miner from a distant region, bought his wife against her will. He treated her well, but she took the first chance to run back to her family.
In the meantime, an elegant and polite woman, Shen Hong, who came on the same boat is looking for her husband Guo Bin. An archeologist who works by the river, probably to salvage what they can before the flood, helps her track down his office. He is the boss of the squad of thugs. His partner is a beautiful lady and there are rumours that they might have an affair. She hasn't seen him in two years. When she finds Guo Bin, clearly a wealthy manager with his own car, she tells him that she is in love with another man and wants a divorce. He shows no affection for her anyway. She has to leave the following day so she is in a hurry.
The loudspeakers announce more demolition. Next is the hotel where Han is staying. The sister of the man who lost one arm argues vigorously with the local factory manager that he is entitled to compensation, but nothing comes out of it. The wife has to start packing too. Han's wife finally arrives. She regrets that she left him. He was a good husband, after all. The daughter is in another city. Han offers to take back his wife, but she now belongs to a boat's owner because her brother owes money to him. Han pledges to pay back the debt. It will take at least one year of hard work in the mines. They chat alone in a deserted building overlooking the dying city while another high-rise building is blown up. He tells his coworkers than the wages are better in the mine region and they all follow him to the ferry. An acrobat is walking on a tight-rope between two high-rise buildings that are being demolished.

After the documentary Wuyong/ Useless (2007), Jia returned to his favorite theme (the social transformation of the country) with Er Shi Si Cheng Ji/ 24 City (2008).

After the short film Heshang Aiqing/ Cry Me A River (2008) and the documentary Hai Shang Chuan Qi/ I Wish I Knew (2010), Jia turned to the format of the action movie (with a lot of violence) for Tian Zhu Ding/ Touch of Sin (2013), a film made of four loosely connected stories. It was probably meant to be a tour of Jia's China, but it doesn't have the structure of a real epic, and each episode fails to build up meaning (and a plausible ending).

A man is riding his motorcycle on a winding mountain road when he is confronted by three young men wielding axes and hammers who want to rob him. He coldly pulls out a pistol and kills all three of them. As he continues his journey up the mountain, he passes a truck that is lying on its side, its cargo scattered all over the road, and a dead person already covered with a sheet. Another man on a motorcycle, Dahai, is pensively juggling an apple. It turns out that Dahai is an activist in the coal town nearby, determined to fight the corrupt village chief who got rich by selling a state company and the corrupt owner Jiao who paid a bribe to get it. When the village chief comes to investigate the murder and lines up all the migrant workers, Dahai confronts him openly about his misdeeds, but the chief simply dismisses him as a loser. One of the workers panics and flees: he is an escaped criminal and thought the police are there for him, when in fact they are there for the triple murder on the highway. Dahai is well intentioned but a bit naive: he writes a report to the central government, but pretends to mail it even if he doesn't have the address. Dahai confronts all the officials with the simple truth: two people got extremely rich out of the coal mine, while the workers got virtually nothing. The owner Jiao even comes to visit on his own private jet. Dahai is a bit funny in the way he confronts the owner in front of everybody, a veritable Don Quijote. Not even the other workers pay attention to him, so slim are the chances of winning. Later he gets beaten badly by one of the boss' men (with a shovel, as the man was playing golf with his head) until he falls bleeding on the asphalt of the runway. At the hospital an official brings him compensation money from the company: case closed. The village chief and the capitalist obviously don't perceive him as a real threat, because they let him free to stir up the workers with his loud anticorruption propaganda. Dahai travels to the big city and visits his sisters, who chides him: instead of marrying a good woman he still chases justice. Back at the village Dahai learns that he is nicknamed "Golf": the workers themselves don't seem to have much respect for his campaing on their behalf. Dahai grabs a gun to force a city employee to write a confession about the money embezzled by the village chief. The employee calls his bluff, knowing Dahai to be a peaceful man, but Dahai loses his temper and kills first the employee and then his wife and then another employee who calls him "Golf". Dahai walks across the village carrying his gun until he finds the chief and then guns him down. Dahai even kills a peasant who is in the habit of torturing his horse. Then Dahai ambushes the owner.
The scene changes to a boat that is taking tourists and commuters to a village by the lake just across from the skyscraper of a big city. A migrant worker gets off. The village has gathered to celebrate the 70th birthday of a much loved woman. The migrant is her youngest son. He joins his wife and their child in paying tribute to the old woman. Zhou has been away for work but has sent money to his wife His iwfe is bitter though. When the other two brothers come to give him a share of the money raised for her brother's birthday celebrations, Zhou declines and asks the money be given to their mother. The money he makes as a migrant is actually a lot more. It's New Year's Eve, with fireworks and bonfires. His wife would like him to stay in the village, but he is eager to get out and see the world, and is already looking for work in faraway places. But we soon find out what his real occupation is: he follows a couple that just came out of a bank, brutally kill them and takes their money. Then he gets on a motorcycle and rides out of the city (is he the same motorcyclist who killed the three boys in the first episode?)
Xiaoyu has been having an affair with a married man for many years, but now she wants to have a baby and gives him an ultimatum: either he divorces his wife or their relationship is over. He is going away on a business trip and asks her in vain to go with him. This time she refuses. The security officers take a fruit knife from him and she takes it with her. Later she gets confronted by his wife and beaten by her friends or relatives. She hitchhikes to her home village, where she chats with her aging mother, who is not proud of her. There she learns from television about a train accident that probably involved her lover: she would have been injured too if she had been on that train. On the way back she witnesses how a truck driver is forced to pay a fee by a thug. Back in the city she goes to work at the all-night sauna where she is a receptionist. Her shift is over is she is just washing her clothes when the same thug and a friend of his walk in. The friend wants to have sex with her, and she shouts in vain that she is not a prostitute. He slaps her in the face repeatedly with a roll of banknotes until she snaps, grabs the knife and kills him. Then she walks delirious on the highway in the dark against traffic, still covered in blood. She opens the cell phone, dials the emergency number and turns herself in.
In a factory a teenager, Xiaohui, starts chatting with a friend and causes that friend to get injured by a machine. Having lost that job, he takes a job at a luxusy hotel, where he meets the sexy and brazen Lianrong, who works there as a showgirl and call girl for businessmen. He falls in love with her until she tells him that she has a three-year old daughter to raise and he witnesses her walking into a guest's room ready to perform sex on him. He quits his job at the hotel and goes to work in a factory again. He is broke. Suddenly he decides to jump from a balcony.
Xiaoyu is looking for a job at Jiao's company. The whole village has assembled in the square to watch an opera performance.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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