Digging For China

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Perhaps no nation on Earth has endured more social, economic, and artistic change in the last century than China — and perhaps no modern artist is more qualified to document that change than the director Jia Zhang-ke. For the past decade, Mr. Jia has built a strong international reputation on the festival circuit and among cinema aficionados by presenting austere and haunting visions of a painfully evolving China through an unflinching human lens.

Mr. Jia’s new film, “Still Life,” which makes its theatrical premiere next Friday at the IFC Center, claimed the top prize at the 2006 Venice Film Festival and solidified his auteur status.

This past year, the Tribeca Film Festival and the New York Film Festival both showcased Mr. Jia’s work. The staggering epic “Platform” (2000) chronicles a decade in the life of an amateur theater troupe as it constantly reinvents itself to adapt to the latest sociopolitical climate. “Unknown Pleasures” (2002) captures the Westernized mores and indulgences among contemporary Chinese youths. And “The World” (2004) uses a miniature theme park as a metaphor for the antiquated communist country bracing itself for globalization.

Now “Still Life,” which spent 2007 crisscrossing the globe at no fewer than 13 film festivals, explores the infamous real-life construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam over the Yangtze River, a project that led engineers to flood the surrounding territories, including the 2,000-year-old city of Fengjie. In Mr. Jia’s minimalist drama, two personal stories are weaved into the geographical transformation of the area. Han Sanming (Han Sanming), a miner from northern China, revisits the area after a 16-year absence and attempts to find his wife and his adult daughter — but he is trying to locate them at addresses that now exist underwater. Meanwhile, nurse Shen Hong (Zhao Tao) also returns to the site of Fengjie and scours the area for her husband, who has been estranged for two years and who, it seems, has become consumed by his executive lifestyle. Meanwhile, as a documentary-style backdrop, the old structures of Fengjie are continually destroyed, and new, makeshift structures are installed as replacements.

“From a historical perspective, changes and progress are necessary in order to solve social issues,” the 37-year-old director said, speaking in his native Mandarin. “It’s often tough for middle-aged people who are set in their ways. Even if the world around them is changing, they may still think that ‘changes are not for me.’ It’s really sad. Poverty has forced many of them to leave their loved ones behind and head for big cities. They must go from interior China to the coast, where all the resources and opportunities are.” In “Still Life,” characters casually move through their lives in the foreground while buildings in the background unexpectedly collapse as part of the systematic demolition project in the Three Gorges area — Mr. Jia’s meditation on the upheaval of social change and progress. But unlike many of his flashier and wealthier filmmaking colleagues, the director took a necessarily organic approach.

“We couldn’t afford CGI, so we had to sit around and wait to capture a demolition in one take,” he said. “Fortunately, we could often tell when the workers were about to raze a building, so we’d set up and film as they were counting down to the explosion.”

Mr. Jia, whose frequent vérité style and non-professional casts have earned comparisons to the work of Robert Bresson and Hou Hsiao-hsien, has made five dramatic features in the past decade. But he is also recognized in cinema circles for the underground films that failed to be “state-sanctioned” and therefore could not play in Chinese theaters. His early films are nonetheless well known in China, due mostly to the country’s rampant penchant for piracy. Indeed, Mr. Jia has long been considered a member of what is known as the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers — a designation that arose after 1990 as state censorship policies produced an edgy, underground film movement.

“In 2003, there was a major shift in Chinese policies,” Mr. Jia said. “Filmmaking used to serve as propaganda, but now it’s becoming an industry. China doesn’t have a ratings system like the United States does, so filmmakers still have to exercise some form of self-censorship.”

Of course, genuine, state-sponsored censorship has also played an informative role in Mr. Jia’s education as an artist. Where Western filmmakers would likely shudder at the sight of their films on a bootlegger’s table, Mr. Jia has come to embrace the opportunity. “I’ve come across pirated VCDs of my films, and it’s like reuniting with my long-lost children. My recent films probably wouldn’t have received state sanction if they hadn’t been successful internationally. The climate now is beyond political. If films aren’t commercial enough, theaters don’t show them.”

To his credit, Mr. Jia has managed to advance in both China and the international filmmaking community without delving into the traditional and lucrative martial arts genre — not that the thought hasn’t crossed his mind. He initially envisioned “Still Life” as a wuxia pian, a film of martial chivalry rooted in mythical China. Although Mr. Jia is a confessed fan of the wuxia genre, he has spoken out against major Chinese directors who have jumped on the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” bandwagon.

But some of those directors, such as Zhang Yimou, creator of such Chinese mega-budget hits as “Curse of the Golden Flower,” consider it a matter of survival. In a recent interview, Mr. Zhang noted that Hollywood films eat up 95% of the Chinese market, and that commercial films are the local industry’s only fighting chance to compete. “There’s always the debate of whether we should be making these films, and whether they signal progress or regression,” Mr. Zhang said.

The competitive edge of big-budget martial arts films comes at the expense of independent films by Sixth Generation directors such as Mr. Jia. In 2006, theaters in China shortened the run of “Still Life” in order to make room for Mr. Zhang’s “Curse of the Golden Flower.” As a result, Mr. Jia and Mr. Zhang’s longtime producing partner engaged in a very public war of words. Mr. Zhang is a recognized member of the Fifth Generation, which brought increased popularity to Chinese cinema abroad in the 1980s.

“I am not opposed to Fifth Generation directors making martial arts flicks,” Mr. Jia said. “But they are suggesting that a country as big as China can’t simultaneously sustain commercial cinema and independent cinema, and that films are irrelevant without big budgets.”

For his next film, “The Age of Tattoo,” Mr. Jia plans to work with the pop star Jay Chou, who was one of the stars of “Curse of the Golden Flower.” Will the director finally find success at the Chinese box office while keeping his artistic integrity intact? The answer might tell us a lot about the next change in Chinese cinema.

The New York Sun

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