Zhangke Jia

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7.0 Pickpocket (1997)
7.4 Platform (2000)
7.0 Unknown Pleasures (2002)
7.3 The World (2004)
7.5 Still Life (2006)
6.1 24 City (2008)
6.0 Cry Me A River (2008)
6.0 Touch of Sin (2013)
7.1 Mountains May Depart (2015)
7.5 Ash is Purest White (2018)

Zhang-ke Jia (China, 1970), raised in the mining region of Shanxi province, studied painting and literature before entering the Beijing Film Academy.

Jia filmed Xiao Wu/ The Pickpocket (1997) in the style of Italian neorealism, with hand-held camera and non-professional actors, keen on showing the social changes among ordinary people. The film is a document of the rapid transformation of China. We not only see the transformation of people, as old manners (including stealing) become obsolete and senseless during the economic boom that creates so many business opportunities, but also the transformation of the urban landscape, as the old dirty narrow alleys and homes are replaced by modern buildings. The pickpocket is representative of those who don't get a chance, because of bad luck and because of weak will. The pickpocket has a moment of strength when he could start a new life, but he is surrounded by criminals, prostitutes and old-fashioned parents, and they all make it difficult for him to be honest. They are doomed to be treated like dogs. The thief in the last scene, after being betrayed by the prostitute and by his own parents, is tied by the cop to the sidewalk like a dog.

The film is set in the crowded and noisy neighborhood of a city. A young man, Xiao Wu, steals a wallet on a bus. He then meets his friends, who are all pickpockets. A friend of his, who has reformed and started a legal business and doesn't hang out with him anymore, is getting married and Xiao Wu has not been invited to the wedding, despite the fact that even the neighborhood cop is invited. Television, radio and loudspeakers placed around town keep repeating the government mantra of a crackdown on theft. Xiao visits his brother, who has a little child, and learns that the whole block of homes will be demolished soon. Xiao keeps the money of the wallets that he stole but drops in the mailbox all the id cards, which the cop then returns. Xiao prepares a packet of banknotes and visits the friend who is getting married: the packet is his wedding gift, but the friend doesn't want it. The friend has moved on and Xiao belongs to a past that he wants to erase. Xiao hires a prostitute to play karaoke but is in a bad mood and she tries in vain to make him smile. He then walks out with the girl, Mei Mei, and witnesses as she calls her mom and tells her that she is in Beijing and being auditioned for a film, clearly a lie. Xiao wanders around alone, stealing an apple, watching people watch karaoke on the TV-set of a shop window, meeting a friend who tries in vain to make him smile, watching people go by. While watching TV, Xiao sees a reporter interviewing the friend who has become a businessman. We hear the noises of the street and a TV movie being played somewhere. Eventually he returns to the brothel and asks for Mei Mei, but Mei Mei isn't there because she's sick. Xiao visits her in the small room that she shares with other prostitutes. She is indeed sick. She doesn't even remember his name, a sign that he is just one of many customers she has seen in the last few days. He keeps her company for a while sitting on her bed. Then he walks alone into a sauna and starts singing: just what he refused to do with Mei Mei at the brothel. The friend who is getting married sends back the packet of banknotes saying that he doesn't want money from crime. Xiao angrily sends the message that his business is not that clean either. Then Xiao uses the money to buy a ring. He brings the ring to the brothel and asks for Mei Mei, but the madame informs him that Mei Mei is entertaining important customers. Later he walks to Mei Mei's place and finds out that she moved out: she didn't even say goodbye, as obviously he's nobody for her, just a weird customer. Xiao visits his parents who are preparing for the oldest son's wedding and his sister admonishes him that the parents are getting old. Xiao's father asks all the siblings to contribute money to the wedding gift. Xiao gives the ring to his mother and then realizes that his mother gave it to his brother. He demands his ring back but the parents kick him out and his father even threatens him with a knife. Xiao swears he will never come back. Back in his neighborhood he witnesses the married brother moving out of the building that is going to be demolished. Xiao steals again and this time he is caught. The cop takes him to the police station, which is a small room, and handcuffs him to his motorcycle and lets him watch television. Xiao confesses that he's the one who has been mailing the id cards of his victims. The TV-set broadcasts more announcements about the crackdown on theft and even reports Xiao's own arrest. Then the cop drags him out into the street but has to stop to do something, so he ties Xiao to the sidewalk and he sits in the street like a dog. Curious people assemble around him, staring with no expression of sympathy or hatred or anything. Just staring.

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.

Shan He Gu Ren/ Mountains May Depart (2015) is three films into one, each shot in a different format. The first film is a story set in 1999, and the format is the almost square format of the 1990s. The second film is set in 2014 and the format of the frames is more rectangular, and the third film is set in the future, and the frames are even more rectangular. This family mini-saga is very long but still feels incomplete. The contrast between the sincere feelings of village life and the artificial superficial lifestyle of the international metropolis is not a particularly original theme. The fact that the transition initially leads to the poor mother losing her son (for material reasons) and later to the rich father losing his son (for psychological reasons) is predictable. The nostalgic ending of the mother who is still waiting for the lost son, after having been left behind like an unnecessary piece of furniture, while remembering in silence the happy innocent days of her youth is a metaphor that there is meaning in accepting one's fate and in never losing hope.

In 1999 a coal-mining village is celebrating the new century. A girl, Tao, is dancing with her friends, notably her boss Jinsheng, who runs a gas station, and the poor coal miner Liangzi. Jinsheng just bought a car, a rarity in the village, and takes Tao for a ride. Jinsheng is jealous of Liangzi, who is clearly in love with Tao. Tao is clueless that the two are fighting over her. Jinsheng fires Liangzi who has to move to another town and look for another job. He sees him again in the shop run by Tao's father. Tao and Jinsheng then spend a night in a disco and Liangzi sees them hugging. Jinsheng insults Liangzi and Liangzi punches him in the nose. Now she understands that her decision hurt her best friend Liangzi and cries. Jinsheng tries to get a gun but it's difficult in China. When he takes Tao for another ride in his car, Tao discovers that he has a bundle of dynamite in the trunk and guesses that he wants to blow up Liangzi. On a train ride she tells her father that she is engaged to the rich Jinsheng and her father is not happy, presumably because it means that she will move out of the village. Tao sees a small airplane crash in front of her (a scene that is not explained). Tao delivers a wedding invitation to Liangzi but Liangzi leaves town in the back of a pickup truck to become a migrant worker. He witnesses the harsh conditions of the countryside when villagers try to rescue an overloaded truck that is stuck in the mud. Tao has a baby, whom Jinsheng names Daole, meaning "dollar".

In 2014 Liangzi is married too and has a child. He is still a coal miner and the doctor warns him that he has lung cancer and needs the attention of a bigger hospital. Liangzi moves back to his hometown, to his old decrepit home, where Tao's wedding invitation is still lying untouched, but he has no money to pay for surgery and chemotherapy. His wife encourages him to borrow money from friends. Liangzi visits an old friend who is moving to a better job in Kazakhstan but this friend has debts too. Liangzi learns from him that Tao is now divorced and runs Jinsheng's old gas station. Liangzi's wife visits Tao during a wedding and begs her for money. Tao is happy to see again his childhood friend Liangzi and donates a lot of money. She tells Liangzi that her son Daole is living with his father Jinsheng in cosmopolitan Shanghai and attending an international school, and that Jinsheng has become a filthy rich investor and is married to another woman. Liangzi returns the wedding invitation that he never opened. Tao has remained unmarried and her father and her aunt have tried in vain to find her a new husband. Her father dies during a train ride to celebrate an old friend's birthday and Tao travels to pick up the body. She sends a message to Jinsheng that she wants Daole to attend the funeral. Daole arrives but he is from another world, dress like a little businessman, despite being a child, and used to the life of the rich. He doesn't even hug his mother and hardly speaks to her. Daole knows nothing about the traditional funeral and her mother cries both for her father's death and for Daole being so estranged from her. Every night Daole uses the computer to talk to his stepmother. Tao overhears that Jinsheng has purchased a home in Australia and that Daole will now learn to speak English. Jinsheng has changed his name to Peter. Tao feels useless. She cooks dumplings for Daole and is happy that he likes them. She gives him a set of keys to the house and tells him that he is welcome any time to come and visit her.

In 2025 Daole is now a young man in Australia who speaks English and can't speak Chinese anymore. He tells his teacher Mia that he has no mother. Jinsheng has aged and spends his time chatting with Chinese friends about China and playing with his collection of guns. Daole despises the old man. Daole has two part-time jobs, as a delivery boy and as a waiter. He keeps meeting his teacher Mia in his jobs. Mia is divorcing her husband. Daole introduces her to his father Jinsheng so she can translate the son's frustration to the father and the father's anger back to the son: they need a translator to communicate. Later Mia drives Daole to an airport and takes him on a helicopter ride during which he kisses her. Initially she is shocked but later they make love. She sees the keys that he wears as a necklace and he tells her that they are the keys to his mother's home. He finally remembers and cries. The older woman advises him to fly to China and see his mother again. He initially accepts but then is hurt when a sales agent assumes that he is his lover's son. Meanwhile, in her village, his mother Tao lives alone with a dog. She walks out while it's snowing and start dancing the dance of the first scene. (We are not told whether Daole will ever visit her, just like we are not told what happened to Liangzi).

Jiang Hu Er Nv/ Sons and Daughters of the Jianghuo/ Ash Is Purest White (2018) flirts with multiple genres: under the pretense of a mellow gangster film (with very little violence and only one killing that is not even shown), it offers a history epic spanning 17 years of modern China, a film noir (after all, the protagonist is the woman, a coalminer’s daughter, not the gangster) and a love melodrama. The first part is the tale of a woman who sacrifices everything to protect the man she loves. The second part is an odyssey on boats, buses, and trains through a nation that has changed dramatically in just a few years and left her behind as the betrayed woman searches in vain for a new life. She meets a humanity in constant transition, sometimes lured by prospects of riches and often forced to sacrifice their identity in the name of the progress that generates those riches. The sweeping social, economic and technological change are symbolically summarized by the fact that at the beginning messages are delivered by people and at the end by Wechat on a smartphone. At this point already the Jianghu code of behavior in the small failing coal town seems humane by comparison with the mechanistic economic development of the country, that turns landscape into GDP and business opportunity and turns workers into disposable names on a map. The desperation of the father who sees the coal mine shut down and his people sent to faraway provinces is the desperation of humans who cannot find meaning in their lives anymore, having been reduced to cogs in a vast mechanical organism. This faceless crowd is now pulled in different directions by Western culture, folk culture and communist culture. Hence the mix of disco-music, street performers and communist songs. The third part is a poem of failure as the protagonist returns to her hometown, now a decrepit refuge for losers who missed the economic boom, and tries in vain to win her old lover back, despite the fact that he has lost all the allure of the gang leader. Jia's documentary style is augmented with a touch of Kaurismaki-ian eccentric nonsense. The ending also stands as a sinister premonition of the future, of what will come later for the nation: the surveillance camera that morphs into "the" camera of the film. The film revisits Jia's favorite places: it begins and ends in the coal country that was the setting for Unknown Pleasures, and the middle section is set in the Three Gorges area like Still Life. But this time the handheld camera is manned by Eric Gautier.

In 2001 the young Qiao walks into a bar were her boyfriend Bin is playing mahjong with his friends. Bin is the highly respected gang-leader, raised in the world of “Jianghu” (small-time thugs). He settles amicably a dispute between two brothers, Jia and Sun: Jia confesses that he is guilty of borrowing money from the brother. Qiao is the only woman admitted to their drinking nights. Later, Qiao takes a taxi to the village where her father lives. She is told that the authorities are shutting down the coal mine and firing the workers, who are encouraged to migrate to other provinces. Someone is blasting insults at the incompetent manager of the coal mine from a loudspeaker. Qiao finds him in an office: he is her father. Qiao stops him and he starts crying. Qiao takes a bus to return to the town and joins her boyfriend Bin in a night-club where they dance to Western disco-music of the 1970s. As they dance, Bin accidentally drops a gun. Guns are illegal and a grave offence. An older businessman comes to ask Bin for help. Someone has been smearing his real-estate project. Bin promises to help out. The old man has hired two young dancers to show off on the dancefloor. He is still living in that poor town because he can't leave his mother alone. However, later Bin is informed that the old man has been stabbed to death. Bin visits the family. The police officer pledges to find the killers. Bin brings the young dancers to perform at the funeral. Later, Bin and Qiao walk together and she confesses that she would like to get married and leave the coal town and the gang behind. Suddenly someone attacks Bin. They get caught by the gang: two young thugs who attacked Bin by mistake. Bin forgives them and even praises them as promising talents. While he is still on crutches, Qiao and Bin take a tour of the countryside, where they can stare at a volcano. She still has the gun. Bin doesn't want it, and he teaches her how to shoot. They meet Lin, a "college boy", a friend of Bin who studied and has become a successful businessman, and they meet his sexy sister Jiayan. The college boy delivers a briefcase full of banknotes and cigars. They don't have time to enjoy the deal: a group of bikers surround their car and attack them. They beat up the driver, while Bin watches from inside the car, and then they break the window to get to Bin. Bin fights heroically but is outnumbered and they could kill him, but Qiao walks out of the car brandishing the gun and shoots in the air. That's enough to scare the bikers away. This however creates another problem: the police arrest them for owning a gun. Qiao refuses to incriminate Bin and so is sentenced to prison. She is transported with others to a new prison, paraded through town in a bus with all the other convicts. Qiao is released after five years. Bin never visited her. Qiao travel by boat to the province where Bin now lives. On the boat she is scammed by a woman wearing a black dress who steals her id. The boat reaches the Three Gorges while the authorities are relocating millions of people to other provinces after the monumental Three Gorges project on the Yangtze River. Bin now works with college boy Lin. Lin pretends to be happy to see Qiao but lies to her about Bin's whereabouts (he's in the next room, listening to them). Jiayan tells her that Bin has a new girlfriend: Jiayan herself. Outside Qiao watches the street show of a rock band that keeps two lions in a cage. Qiao, penniless, joins a wedding banquet and eats for free. Qiao then sees men beating up the very thief who stole her id. Qiao saves her from the beating but then demands her id. Qiao then scams a rich man in a restaurant pretending to be the sister of his lover and pretending that this lover is pregnant. The rich man gives her money. She takes a motorcycle taxi to the power plant where Lin said that Bin works, but it starts raining and the motorcycle rider stops under a bridge. While they wait for the rain to stop, he asks her to have sex. She scams himand steals his motorcycle. She then stops at a police station to report the attepted rape but it is only an excuse to have the police find Bin. She tells Bin that her father died. Bin has no excuse. Simply, he decided to change life. He is no longer part of "jianghu". He feels bad that he never went to visit Qiao, who went to prison for him, but he still wants a new life with Jiayan. Qiao takes the train to return to her coal town. On the train she meets a talkative stranger who is starting a travel agency in a distance province to take tourists to hunt for UFOs. Qiao, who need a new life, tells him that she has seen a UFO. He immediately asks her to follow him and she does. However, later he confesses that the story is bullshit and he owns a small store in the distance province. She tells him that she is an ex-convict. When he falls asleep, Qiao gets off at a station. She walks alone in the dark in an unfamiliar land. Suddenly she sees a bright light in the sky: a UFO? or just a dream? Daylight. She is walking in a white square and casts a long shadow. Bin is in a wheelchair. They travel in the back of a pickup truck to town. Qiao now runs a mahjong parlor. Bin is a cripple, and bitter about his fate. He meets old friends of the gang. Most are gone and he hears what happens to them. Qiao is still single. Bin too never married. Bin became a cripple after a brain hemorrhage caused by excessive drinking. Some of his old friends pay tribute to him, their old boss, but it's just a crowd of losers. Bin gets into an argument with Jia, who has not forgotten the old humiliation, and Jia humiliates Bin. Qiao breaks a pot on Jia's head, saving Bin again. Later, Qiao pushes Bin's wheelchair in an empty stadium. She swallows tears. He makes her smile with a silly selfie while he's getting acupuncture treatment. Workers are installing a surveillance camera at a corner. Qiao takes Bin to the countryside where they used to look at the volcano, and helps him rehabilitate. He starts walking again. But in 2018 he texts her that he is gone. The surveillance camera shows her and becomes the camera of the film.

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