|Jia Zhangke, Still Life|
Jia grew up in the remote provincial town of Fenyang in Shanxi province, where his Beijing family was deported during the Cultural Revolution. After studying in the capital, the director returned to Fenyang to make his debut feature Xiao Wu (aka Pickpocket) in 1997, a brazenly original work that represented a marked break with the stately historical epics of ‘fifth generation’ Chinese directors like Chen Kaige. Shot entirely on location on 16mm film for very little money, Xiao Wu traces the misadventures of the eponymous ‘hero’, a petty thief who in the course of the story manages to be rejected by one of his childhood friends, become estranged from his family, and lose his girlfriend. Caught stealing a wallet from a street stall customer when his beeper goes off at exactly the wrong moment, Xiao is arrested and ends the film handcuffed to a telegraph pole. He crouches in the busy street, hunched and looking like he wishes he could disappear into the pavement. Suddenly, the camera executes a 180 degree turn, revealing a very real crowd of curious onlookers. Some stare at the chained actor, but most look questioningly straight at the camera. They shift uncomfortably from one foot to another under the camera’s gaze, or chat nervously, occasionally glancing around as if hoping for an explanation of the strange scene before them. Jia holds the shot for what seems like an eternity before an abrupt cut to the end credits.
This startling final shot ruptures the diegetic world of the drama, whose borders have already been blurred by the glances of passers-by at the camera as it follows Xiao Wu through the streets of Fenyang. Is Jia turning his lens on the ‘new China’ and its indifference towards those left by the wayside on the road to material affluence? Or is he forcing the viewer to confront the reality of a country so long seen only through stereotypes perpetuated by both Chinese and Western governments? For me these final moments feel like a profoundly unsettling inversion of the camera’s gaze, a chance for the ‘Other’ to return my voyeuristic interest in China and its people, in the process calling into question my entire relationship to the world depicted on screen. No doubt Chinese viewers bring a whole different set of cultural baggage to their reading of the shot. In any case, Xiao Wu set the template for Jia’s conclusions, which invariably turn on an unexpected though usually understated event, or a sudden shift in tone, that forces the viewer to reassess everything the film has shown us to that point.
Since Xiao Wu, the director has explored a range of different styles, from the circuitous historical sweep of his second feature Platform (2000) to the mixture of live action and animation in The World (2004). Like Xiao Wu, Platform and its follow-up, Unknown Pleasures (2002) were set in Fenyang, while The World takes place in a theme park on the outskirts of Beijing. But even when his setting is the capital, Jia remains concerned with those on the periphery—historical bystanders living in the slipstream of immense economic and political forces over which they have no control.
China’s opening up and the subsequent influx of fashion, pop culture and media images means Jia’s characters are acutely aware of the possibilities of the outside world, but they also know that by and large these possibilities remain out of their reach. Platform, for example, follows the lives of a troupe of travelling performers through the 1980s. Despite the great changes they experience in the course of that decade, the main characters end up trapped in the same provincial setting from which they start. The sense of frustration and hopelessness this situation engenders is graphically depicted in The World, set in Beijing’s Five Continents theme park which comprises miniature versions of famous sites from around the globe, including the Manhattan skyline, the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. The park workers move between ‘countries’, performing dances in a variety of national costumes for cashed-up tourists, yet they themselves lack the means to really engage with the life of the city outside, let alone travel to the exotic destinations represented in the park. One poignant scene sees the main character, Tao, chatting to a young labourer on a building site. They pause in their conversation as a jet airliner passes over head. “Tao”, the labourer asks, “who flies on those planes?” She shrugs and replies, “Who knows...I don’t know anybody who has ever been on a plane.”
It’s not just economics, however, that see the men and women of Jia’s films excluded from the opportunities of the new China—they are also psychologically and philosophically unprepared to deal with what’s required to survive in an individualised world of ever accelerating change. They usually cling to relationships in an attempt to provide an element of certainty in their lives, but love and sex are rendered as transient as all other connections in the new economic order. Xiao Wu’s girlfriend clings to him determinedly when he visits her in the karaoke bar where she works, yet she later leaves town with a rich client without even saying goodbye. In The World, Tao’s boyfriend is convinced they will split up if Tao finds someone ‘better’, but it is he whose interest is later diverted by a chic clothes designer. “You’re my whole life”, Tao tells him as they share a post-coital moment in a hotel. “If you’re unfaithful I’ll be left with nothing.” To which he calmly replies “You can’t count on anyone that much these days, including me.”
In his portrait of people attempting to find a way to live in a world without stable familial, economic or social ties, Jia’s films share many common thematic concerns with the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. Indeed, parts of Still Life feel like a homage to the Italian director, particularly the way Jia films the setting of the Three Gorges region, where the construction of the world’s largest dam has seen millions of people displaced as entire cities are demolished and rebuilt above the new waterline. The central figures of Still Life move like somnambulants through a riverside landscape of rubble, buildings half-constructed or half-demolished (it’s impossible to tell which), and bridges over waterless depressions. Like the incomplete Roman suburbs of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962) this is a zone of indeterminate purpose, where immense changes are clearly occurring, while at the same time history—and any social or cultural foundation it might provide—seems to have been completely erased. The old world has been obliterated, but its replacement has yet to take shape, leaving a population wandering in a landscape without bearings.
It’s no coincidence that China has thrown up a filmmaker like Jia Zhang-Ke at a time when the country is emerging from decades of intense trauma and upheaval, embarking on a future that promises much but is also further destabilising the existing social order. But Jia’s films don’t just tell us something about contemporary China. The People’s Republic has experienced a more intense version of the market-driven revolution that has affected all of us in the past 20 years, creating a globalised space that has brought images of consumer riches tantalisingly close to much of the world’s population, even as those riches remain, in reality, as inaccessible as ever for many. When we’re hypnotised by a world in which anything and everything seems possible, meaningful contact with each other, it seems, becomes harder than ever.
Still Life, director Jia Zhang-Ke, performers Han Sanming, Zhao Tao, producer Chow Keung; Sydney Film Festival, June 9 & 11
Jia Zhang-Ke’s The World is distributed on DVD in Australia by Madman.
RealTime issue #79 June-July 2007 pg. 17
© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com