A Word from our Selectors: Tribute to…
The Sarajevo Film Festival is proud to be the site of the most complete retrospective ever to be mounted of the works of Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke, who is widely recognized as one of the greatest living artists of the cinema.
A Jia Zhang-ke film generally commences with what I consider a flourish: a slow horizontal pan, a leisurely sweep of the camera. For one thing, his movies are invariably punctuated by scenes of pure performance by dancers or singers or other types of “acts” such as animated sequences or background television programs. Postmodern, if you please.
At the same time, this cinematographic gesture announces the movie itself as a Jia Zhang-ke uber-performance, an artistic vision in which the aesthetics of his imagination fuse with the hard realities he of contemporary China that he charts. The artificial distinction between fiction and documentary melts as the film spools unwind before our eyes.
That initial camera movement serves yet another purpose. Jia Zhang-ke tells us up front that he is deconstructing space as most of us experience it. He is something of a celluloid architect, defining characters and situations by his placement of elements of buildings, or their absence, like in public spaces. Most of the films take place in his home town of Fenyang, in the province of Shanxi, but he also successfully captures the terrain of his adopted Beijing, especially in THE WORLD (2004).
You don’t have to understand Einstein to realize the implications for the dissection of time. A long take might extend it, a mobile handheld camera can accelerate it. Revolutionary Russian directors like Eisenstein and Pudovkin wrote about, and experimented with, cinematic space and time. In his inimitable fashion, Jia Zhang-ke updates those concepts to suit the geographical and technological landscape of this century.
His earliest films focus on slackers and misfits, for whom pop culture is a palliative. The emergence of enormous numbers of layabouts in China actually has its roots back in the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping began his Open Door policy for economic development and encouraged the populace to be optimistic about it. Things didn’t turn out so well for most. The disparity between the haves and have-nots has steadily increased ever since.
Those first works also include characters playing amateur actors and musicians. An anarchistic component is evident in his first film, XIAO SHAN GOING HOME (1995), with a soundtrack full of regional dialects – unheard of in China, where Mandarin is the standard – and non-narrative shots of written text, such as train schedules. The rebelliousness continues in a different way in his first full feature, PICKPOCKET (1997), for he clearly empathizes with the maladjusted young transgressor of the title.
One constant throughout his work is the use of assorted formal strategies, such as that ever-moving camera, in UNKNOWN PLEASURES (2002), for instance, and theatrical inserts in PLATFORM (2000) and THE WORLD. Beginning with the fictional STILL LIFE (2006), which took the Golden Lion at Venice, and its companion documentary DONG (2006), Jia Zhang-ke increasingly documents the skeletons in China's closet, huge problems that are usually kept hush-hush, to the point where the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers have buckled under the pressure. As a result, almost all of his films have been banned or allowed to play only at off-hours in out-of-the-way cinemas.
In STILL LIFE and DONG, he exposes the excesses and negative impact of the huge Three Gorges Dam project, for which whole towns were flooded and more than a million people displaced. His documentary USELESS (2007) reveals how traditional ways of handling fabric, such as those practiced by craftsmen in small shops all over the country, are disappearing as large corporations and their enormous factories make clothes in large quantities on assembly lines, garments that lack the texture of the now-dated methods.
In 24 CITY, which opened last year’s Panorama, he moves further into documentary territory. He is one of the only feature filmmakers who looks out for the interests of ordinary people. In that film, he articulates the rapid shift from communal factory life and its values to individualism and crass materialism. “Chinese people today have to take on the responsibility of facing the past, of handling what has happened,” he explains.
How unusual: a thorough documentarian who creates as well stylish fiction.
These movies are very real compared to the prettified films from the ‘90s by Fifth Generation Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.(Jia Zhang-ke began as a painter and dabbled as a novelist and break dancer.) Last year he surprised us again, creating a nostalgic mood piece about the reunion of four college friends in the short CRY ME A RIVER, set in lovely, canal-ringed Suzhou. The film was inspired by the intense Chinese melodramas of the late 1940s, especially Fei Mu’s melancholy 1948 film called SPRING IN SMALL TOWN, which is included in the Tribute.
But Jia Zhang-ke never loses sight of the stories about individuals in both his fiction and his documentaries. In the former, the beautiful, multi-faceted actress Zhao Tao is a constant presence, her slightly off-center characters carrying the weight of both social and psychological conditions. Even in the shorts, she almost singlehandedly carries the mood pieces TEN YEARS (2007) and REMEMBRANCE (2008). His male surrogate, played by the actor Hongwei Wang, is an unglamorous underachiever and troublemaker.
And in the documentaries: Much of USELESS focuses on the female fashion designer Ma Ke, whose philosophy of craftsmanship and organic materials flies in the face of the anonymous, large-scale production that now rules; and the sections of DONG that highlight the egregious excesses of the Three Gorges Dam project are viewed through the prism of artist Liu Xiaodong’s in situ paintings. (Jia Zhang-ke has been shooting the documentary SHANGHAI LEGEND, which is the official film of the 2010 Shanghai Expo, and for which he is gathering archive footage worldwide to include elements of the Shanghainese diaspora.)
How unusual: a humanist who is also a sharp social critic.
Howard Feinstein, programmer
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