Jia Zhangke Capsule Reviews
Xiao Shan Going Home (1995) — January 22, 2019
Soul Asylum! Crash Test Dummies!
Man, 1995 was everywhere in 1995.
Xiao Wu (1997) — April 1, 2014
Jia Zhangke’s first full-length film is one of his more conventional, but like last year’s A Touch of Sin, Jia in genre mode is still more Jia than genre. Sure, the narrative is slow and oblique, but the main character is a recognizable generic type, a young man of questionable morals (he’s a pickpocket) alienated in turn from old friends, a romantic interest and family (he also looks like young Woody Allen and acts like young Robert DeNiro in Mean Streets). A politically potent depiction of a rapidly changing society, trapped in the contradiction between state terror and laissez-faire capitalism to be sure. But more than that it’s about being a self-centered, kind of dumb young person caught in a world you never made.
As in every Jia film, the camera is somewhat remote and the takes are long, as is the standard idiom of so-called Asian Minimalism, but rather than leaven that with visual diversions like the cartoon flights of The World or the alien-ation of Still Life, Jia’s subtle surrealism here manifests itself in the sound design. Set in a modernizing Fenyang, the sounds of urbanization (construction, traffic, the tinny music of cheap stereos and karaoke, even the soundtrack to John Woo’s The Killer) are inescapable, constricting every interaction with the inexorability of change. While the later images evoke the freedom of escape, if only in fantasy form, no such hope exists for Xiao Wu. The most surreal image in the film comes in its final moments: seeing himself denounced on the TV news, followed by seemingly the whole city gathered to stare disapprovingly at him, captured at last in the latest government crackdown on crime.
Added January 22, 2019:
Didn’t notice this the first time around, but just as Xiao Wu is getting lost in his romantic reverie, when he’s had a bath and started to sing, it’s Jia himself who busts in to remind him that he’s a lowlife and all his friends hate him, sending him on his inevitable slide to ruin.
Platform (2000) — January 23, 2019
Youth is the All-Star Rock n’ Breakdance Electronic Band.
Adulthood is taking a nap.
In Public (2001) — January 23, 2019
Marching with vigor into a new age.
The Condition of Dogs (2001) — January 28, 2019
Someone better have let the dogs out.
Unknown Pleasures (2002) — January 24, 2019
“We’re too young. There are choices we can’t make.”
Loving Jia’s cameos in these early films. Guy Singing on Street is perfect for him.
When Yuan Yuan escapes the film, she does so on a bicycle, under her own power. Everyone else is subject to the whims of motor vehicles, buses, motorcycles, trains. Even Qiao San is killed by a car.
Wang Hongwei reprises his role as Xiao Wu, now an older crook, branching into loan sharking. He buys bootleg dvds from Bin Bin (he picks Pulp Fiction), but not before asking if he has any art house movies, including Xiao Wu and Platform (and Love Will Tear Us Apart, another Joy Division reference but also a film directed by Jia’s DP Yu Lik-wai, who is also, according to Platform, a wanted criminal in Inner Mongolia). So in this universe, the character Xiao Wu is interested in, but does not own, a copy of the movie about himself in which he himself stars.
The connection to Ash is Purest White is obvious. Zhao Tao has the same name and wears some of the same clothes. She’s coupled with the wrong boy though. Bin is her boyfriend in Ash (and I’m not sure but I think his boss in Ash is played by the same actor who plays the cop who has arrested Bin at the end of Unknown Pleasures), which is the same name as the husband she’s searching for in Still Life (Guo Bin), a film which the middle of Ash sort of recreates. That film also of course features Han Sanming (Jia’s cousin and real-life coal miner) playing a miner named Sanming, which is who he played in Platform as well (where he was Wang Hongwei’s character’s cousin). Which I think makes Still Life the nexus of all Jia’s fictional features, the Sanming Cinematic Universe.
The World (2004) — January 24, 2019
“We hope this panoramic view will heighten your knowledge of the world.”
Platform, Mountains May Depart, and Ash is Purest White are straight lines
Xiao Wu, Unknown Pleasures, The World, Still Life, and A Touch of Sin are circles.
But they’re all ultimately governed by entropy.
Still Life (2006) — January 25, 2019
The absolute midpoint of Jia’s career to date, uniting his early Fenyang-set features with his later, more genre-driven work through Zhao Tao’s search for a man named Guo Bin (there are at least three different Guo Bins, and he knows at least two different Zhao Taos (Zhao Qiao and Shen Hong) and the continuing adventures of Jia’s coal-mining cousin Han Sanming, who plays a coal miner named Sanming in at least three of Jia’s films.
It’s also where he took a mid career swing into documentary. It’ll be seven years before he makes a true fiction feature again (although even that one will be based on a collection of true stories).
So it’s all too appropriate of course that this film that flows so easily to the rest of his work is set on a river, on the river. In a world equal parts beautiful and horrific, alien and mundane, decaying into the future, singing and dancing over the rubble of two thousand years.
Dong (2006) — January 25, 2019
“Whatever will be will be. It’s all pointless anyway. So let’s just do whatever we feel up to. All I can do these days is paint. So I try to be creative and innovative. Do something with a certain feel.”
“If you attempt to change anything with art, it would be laughable. Once in awhile they have a good time, that’s it. I’m getting by, but as long as I live I have to express myself. I use their bodies to portray them and to express some of my views. What’s more, I wish I could give them something through my art. It’s the dignity intrinsic to all people.”
Neither of these quotes from subject Liu Xiaodong are gonna satisfy Jia’s critics who think he’s become too cozy with the PRC, but they do seem to reflect the tendency of his work.
I don’t know that this is a particularly satisfactory film anyway. Seems like Jia lost interest halfway through both halves. In the first section deciding to go ahead and make Still Life alongside it, in the second just wandering away from his ostensible subject to follow a model across town. Still, it’s got a nice chill vibe and I’m always up for watching people paint.
Useless (2007) — January 28, 2019
Finally a film that understands that it should be impossible to watch a fashion show without rooting for fire.
24 City (2008) — January 28, 2019
Factory leaving the workers.
“This is the final struggle.”
“I know I can do it. I’m the daughter of a worker.”
Cry Me a River (2008) — January 28, 2019
Distilling a whole genre of movie (we were young and poor and in love and now we’re old and successful and alienated) down to an essential and pretty much perfect 20 minutes.
Casting the two leads from Summer Palace is likely simply meant as a nod to Lou Ye, but it plays a bit like Dylan singing “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue” in front of Donovan.
I Wish I Knew (2010) — October 6, 2010
After last year’s excellent 24 City, I wasn’t quite prepared for this latest film from Jia Zhangke. While that film was a documentary that mixed scripted and acted interviews with real-life talking heads in a way that made one question the nature of documentary realism, this film is pretty much a straight and conventional film. It’s an epic collection of stories about Shanghai, told by the people who lived there and the children of the people who lived there. Shanghai was the epicenter for the most important developments in China over the 20th Century, from the European occupations to the Japanese invasion to the Civil War between the Communists and Chiang Kai-Shek’s KMT to the Cultural Revolution to the embrace of capitalism in the late 1980s. Even the Chinese film industry was based there for much of the century. Jia’s 18 interviews tell these stories in detail, with communists and KMT generals and movie stars and directors. The film is unusually structured, with the interviews coming not in chronological order of their stories, but rather the geographical order of where they have spread out. The Shanghai diaspora mainly went to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and so Jia goes to each of those places to seek out their stories. But these interviews are interspersed with scenes of present-day Shanghai, where Zhao Tao wanders mutely around the sites of the old stories, neatly tying the old and new, the diasporic and the homeland together. It’s a beautiful film, about as good as a talking-head documentary can be.
Added January 29, 2019:
The city as synecdoche for the nation, its past slipping away into a slicker future, for better or worse. Unfocused and meandering, in contrast to 24 City’s tight control and specificity, its story is more diffuse, more elusive, colored perhaps too much by Lim Going’s melancholy doodling and Zhao Tao walking sadly in the rain.
A Touch of Sin (2013) — October 3, 2013
More Jia than wuxia, but it’s all there.
Added January 29, 2019:
Wang Hongwei beating Zhao Tao with a stack of cash while Jia Zhangke smokes a cigar and buys art and women is some weird kind of meta joke that I don’t get at all.
Thinking maybe Jia isn’t so much pro- or anti-PRC as he is a traditionalist, like John Woo, like John Ford, like Clint Eastwood, longing for an idealized past morality that he knows was never really real anyway.
Mountains May Depart (2015) — October 4, 2015
Sylvia Chang this year directed Murmurs of the Heart, wrote and starred in Office, and starred in Mountains May Depart.
Tang Wei this year gave three terrific and very different performances in Blackhat, Office, and A Tale of Three Cities.
I don’t know which of them is having the better year, but they’re both amazing.
And the thing is, Zhao Tao’s performance here is better than anything either of them has done this year.
Added January 30, 2019:
Mountains may depart, but great waves (涛, Tao, as in Shen Tao, the mother, and Zhao Tao, the actress) leave and return, rise and fall, build and crash, uniting east and west, past and future, pets and Pet Shop Boys.
There’s a fine line between Brechtian and ridiculous, but the future is a silly place.
The Hedonists (2016) — January 30, 2019
Let’s clean-up with Boss Jia!
Ash is Purest White (2018) — October 3, 2018
Can’t wait to watch this again in a couple of days, and then again after I rewatch all his earlier films, but for now suffice it to say that it’s Jia’s 2046.
Only Jia would play two of the best movie songs ever (the Wong Fei-hung theme and Sally Yeh’s “Shallow Drunk Life”, the song from The Killer) and then ten minutes later play “YMCA” twice.
Added October 5, 2018:
Love is building an entire remake of A Better Tomorrow out of the ways your wife turns her head.
Added January 30, 2019:
After a brief prologue of unused footage from his 2001 film Unknown Pleasures, Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White begins with a floating drone shot of a cityscape. Rising drumbeats mark the beginning of the familiar Wong Fei-hung theme song as Jia cuts inside to a packed and noisy gambling den. The camera follows Zhao Tao from behind as she slinks her way through the crowd, and just as the martial theme kicks into gear, an unknown extra shouts her character’s name and she whips her head around, fixing her interlocutor with a stare and the barest hint of a smile, sly and commanding, the coolest person in the world. In many ways the film, loosely structured after the plot of A Better Tomorrow, is a travelogue through the last 17 years of Jia and Zhao’s work. The movie becomes more diffuse as it moves along, as its early gangster setting gives way to the scrappy realism of their sojourn on the Yangtze in Still Life, ending up in a more abstract, and therefore unsettling present. But through it all, Zhao remains at the center. We watch her through her husband’s eyes and every once in awhile, thrillingly, she looks back.
Added December 26, 2019:
Building on the tripartite structure of his 2015 melodrama Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhangke burrows deep within his own filmography for another story of the rapid transformation of the Chinese economy and cultural norms in the 21st Century. Zhao Tao plays one half of a gangster couple, her allegiance to wuxia values hinted at by the Wong Fei-hung theme that introduces and follows her throughout the film. Her boyfriend, played by Liao Fan, is less reliable though. While he appears to be the epitome of Triad cool, he has a hollow core that will shift with the nation’s changing fortunes. His musical theme is Sally Yeh’s “Drunk for Life”, the theme from John Woo’s The Killer, a theme Jia previously associated with petty criminality in his feature debut Xiao Wu, and one which tellingly Liao hears when watching not The Killer, but Taylor Wong’s Woo knock-off Tragic Hero: Liao is a counterfeit wuxia hero. This becomes apparent in the film’s second and third halves. In the second, Zhao is lost in the set of Jia’s 2005 film Still Life, scrounging her way to survival while Liao avoids her. She gathers herself (with the help of a stirring pop music performance, filmed in 2005 and intercut with Zhao in the present) and Goes West, but there are UFOs there. The third act finds her back at home, Liao now dependent on her as his body has begun to rot along with his soul. She helps him, because that’s what wuxia heroes do in the jianghu, the border world of rivers and lakes that gives the film its Chinese title. Like a hero out of John Ford or Chang Cheh, Zhao Tao sticks to her code and does what duty demands, though she knows she’ll only be betrayed again in the end.
The Bucket (2019) — February 2, 2019
Jia makes a commercial as an excuse to play with a new phone. It’s fine.
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020) — October 16, 2020
Some of the same structural ploys as Jia’s other history docs: spiraling out from his hometown to Beijing and Shanghai and beyond while always somehow circling back as it moves forward in time from just before the Anti-Japanese War to the present (it starts with a daughter talking about her father and ends with a mother helping her son talk about himself). 24 City is about a specific factory, I Wish I Knew about a specific city, but Swimming is more diffuse, about a country as a whole. But it’s the one that’s most literal about their common theme: the ways in which people turn personal memories into story, and how those stories relate to the story the nation tells about itself.
Shoutout to the guy who said he started college in Beijing in October of 1989 and how everyone was happy and everything was perfect then. I too can’t think of anything that happened earlier that year that may have soured the general mood.
Visit (2020) — November 25, 2020
In what appears to be his office, Jia Zhangke has prominently displayed a book called “The Cinema of Jia Zhangke”. Lmao.