I Wish I Knew

By Tony Rayns

Jia Zhangke wasn’t the first indie filmmaker in China, but he’s been way more influential than such predecessors as Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Wu Wenguang. Partly because his early films—Xiao Wu (1998), Platform, Unknown Pleasures (2002): the “Shanxi trilogy”—caught moments of transition in Chinese society better than other movies did, and partly because his published writings inspired kids to make indie movies throughout the country. After Jia, the flood. From the start, Jia had a genius for seeing and showing how larger social changes (political, economic, moral) impacted on individual lives. With a sensibility pitched at the exact mid-point between Robert Bresson and Arthur Freed, he used the presence or absence of music to chart the state of the Chinese nation: whether and how a character sang became an index of satisfaction and of the communist party’s vaunted “stability.” Those Joy Division/New Order titles may have been suggested by cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, but pop and alt-rock mean The World (2004) to Jia too. His connection with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s regular composer Lim Giong is tight, despite the Taiwan Strait; indeed, it heralded his own groundbreaking trip to Taiwan to shoot sequences for I Wish I Knew (2010).

Jia’s work has evolved since he opened negotiations with the Film Bureau in 2004. He honed his skills in shadowboxing the authorities by producing other directors’ films as well as his own. His range extended to middle-class characters and their problems (though his heart clearly remains with the working poor). He ventured beyond Shanxi to Beijing, Sichuan, and Shanghai. He further blurred the line between fiction and documentary and, in such films as 24 City (2008) and I Wish I Knew, played with film language to produce exquisite “synch events,” with cuts and camera movements precisely synchronised to music and speech. He turned the crisis in funding independent filmmaking around by finding unexpected sponsors—a pretentious haute couture designer, a property developer, a brand of whisky—and getting from them contractual guarantees that he could make exactly the films he wanted to make. Not least, he paid his dues to past masters (Fei Mu, Xie Jin), cementing his rep as China’s most cinephile director.

The key to understanding Jia is to notice that his aesthetic excellence goes hand-in-hand with his brilliant analysis of the methods needed to maintain intellectual, economic, and political independence in state-capitalist China. Up next, his “political” martial arts film, plus a promised definitive cut of Platform. Can’t hardly wait.

Tagged with →  

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Cinema Scope Issue 86 Table of Contents

    The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020 Interviews The Girl and the Spider *En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène sociale by Jordan Cronk *The More →

  • The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020

    1. Days (Tsai Ming-liang) 2. The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter and Anders Edström) 3. The Year of More →

  • The Primacy of Perception: Ramon & Silvan Zürcher on The Girl and the Spider

    Near the midpoint of The Girl and the Spider—Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s overdue, much anticipated follow-up to their masterful debut feature, The Strange Little Cat (2013)—a character launches into another of the Zürcher brothers’ distinctive anecdotal monologues. Mara (Henriette Confurius), who is as close as this film gets to a protagonist, describes for her neighbour, Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger-Vinet), an incident that occurred the previous day between herself and her newly ex-roommate (and perhaps ex-girlfriend) Lisa (Liliane Amuat). “I was in my room while Lisa was on the toilet,” she recounts. “She asked me to bring her a roll of toilet paper. Instead of giving it to her, I walked past the door from left to right, from Lisa’s point of view.” The image cuts to the scene while she recalls it, privileging us with a more objective account of the incident: a fixed shot showing Mara stand up from her desk, grab a package of toilet paper, and march past the door, her arms outstretched like a zombie. More →

  • Exploded View: Steina & Woody Vasulka

    Icelandic filmmaker Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir’s extraordinarily warming 2019 documentary The Vasulka Effect, about the protean Euro-hippies and rightfully dubbed “grandparents of video art,” Steina and Woody Vasulka, was exactly the movie I needed to see this winter. Awash in Nordic echoes even as it confronts the modern realities of art-gallery politics and the history of America’s visual-arts fringes, it’s a mythical origin story that’s actually true, all about ancient heroes and ravaging time. More →

  • Canadiana | Reading Aids: The Good Woman of Sichuan and Ste. Anne

    When navigating the as-yet-unknown films of a festival program, nationality still provides a persuasive point of reference for some, a feeling underlined by the proud declarations issued by national funding organizations, promotional bodies, or particularly partisan members of the press once titles have been announced. This year’s reduced Berlinale Forum lineup also invites tenuous lines of this kind to be drawn (two films from Argentina, two films from Canada!), although the three Franco-German co-productions shot elsewhere say far more about how films are made in 2021. More →