by Spank the Monkey
Thanks to the London Film Festival, I have a uniquely skewed perspective on the career of Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke. I’ve seen two of his movies there – his 2004 drama The World, and his 2010 documentary I Wish I Knew – in what would turn out to be among the very few screenings they ever received in the UK. And I’ve even briefly been in the same room as the man himself, when in 2000 he attended an LFF panel on the challenges facing Asian independent filmmakers.
But his famous films – the ones that made his reputation, and actually got a proper cinema release over here – well, somehow those have eluded me over the years. So just in time for Christmas, Artificial Eye have repackaged the three films that introduced Jia Zhang-Ke to the world: the loosely-related collection that’s nowadays referred to as The Hometown Trilogy.
As the title suggests, the thing that ties these three stories together is a sense of place. They’re all set in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi (the first two specifically in Jia’s own hometown of Fenyang), and spread across three turbulent decades in Chinese history, from the eighties to the noughties. During that time, the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese directors was largely focused on the country’s past. Jia was part of the Sixth Generation – a group of filmmakers who wanted to concentrate on contemporary themes. After the lush period dramas of the likes of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, this was China’s equivalent of the US independent cinema boom of the late ’80s.
Xiao Wu (1997) was Jia’s debut feature, and it defines his long-take, documentary-style aesthetic from frame one. Shot in grainy 16mm, it follows the title character (played by regular collaborator Wang Hongwei), a pickpocket working the streets of Fenyang. It’s relatively plotless: we see his relationships with his friends, his fellow pickpockets, his family and his girlfriend, and watch as he systematically fails to maintain any of them. Meanwhile, the town he lives in appears to be in a state of collapse, with businesses closing down and the police struggling to maintain order.
This is all filmed in a hyper-realistic style, with only one element of obvious stylisation: the sound mix, which Jia uses masterfully throughout the trilogy. Every scene has several layers of background racket going on within it, as all the buildings in Fenyang appear to have a radio or TV on and a window open, while the streets echo with public service announcements. Jia always makes sure these layers don’t degenerate into total cacophony, so that what we’re hearing in the background comments on the foreground action in a variety of subtle ways. (One scene, unless I’m very much mistaken, is played downwind of a TV showing John Woo’s The Killer, giving Xiao Wu a heroism that the film knows full well he doesn’t deserve.)
During the end credits, we get a caption telling us that everyone we’ve just watched is a non-professional actor, presented as if it’s a big reveal. Obviously, for someone who doesn’t speak Chinese, it’s hard to tell how much of an impact that has on the line readings. To digress wildly for a second, I recently watched the 1981 drama-documentary Take It Or Leave It, in which the band Madness re-enact the early years of their career. It really brought home to me what a fine line there is between ‘non-professional acting’ and ‘people standing in front of a camera saying things’, and how easy it is for, say, Suggs to flip-flop back and forth across that line several times in a single scene. But here, everything feels right. Even to an outsider, it’s obvious that Jia has careful control over his cast, and their reactions look genuine: the final shot, in particular, is a perfect observation of Chinese crowd behaviour. It may seem plotless, but there’s a huge sense of life at the centre of this film.
Xiao Wu was filmed independently, outside of the usual state control: its view of the present-day problems in China didn’t go down entirely well with the authorities back home. But it made its way out onto the international festival circuit, and gave its director a global reputation. Three years later, when Platform (2000) was released, it was a classic case of Second Film Syndrome: the artistic clout Jia got from his small, tightly-edited film ended up being used on a rambling overblown one.
Platform is the only period piece in the trilogy, covering the whole of the 1980s, with infrequent clues to tell us how far into the decade we are. (One of them is a passing reference to a character’s wife acting like ‘The Iron Lady’, indicating that Thatcher’s in town and negotiating the fate of Hong Kong.) We’re back in Fenyang, and following the members of the Peasant Culture Group as they tour the province, bringing ideologically sound entertainment to the masses. Our main focus is Mingliang (Wang Hongwei again), who we first see trying to justify his status as an ‘art worker’ to his rural parents. (“People can work in those trousers?” asks his father incredulously.)
Over the decade, we see the huge changes in China mirrored in the Peasant Culture Group and their activities. The group transfers from state to private ownership, and their attitude towards their message changes as a result. Musically, there’s a slow move away from Maoist propaganda songs to pop music, in an attempt to keep up with what’s trendy in the big cities. Western trends initially seen as dirty and shameful – flamenco, perms, pre-marital sex – gradually become the norm. Meanwhile, the group members are behaving just like any other collection of mixed-gender artists cooped up together. (On that note, this film marks the first appearance of actress Zhao Tao, another regular member of Jia’s rep company, and his wife since early 2012.)
All of this would be fine if Platform had been made with the same discipline as Xiao Wu. But you get the impression that exposure to an international audience resulted in Jia picking up far too many bad arthouse cinema habits. All too often, he lets his camera wander away from a scene to just look at the surroundings, which kills the pace of the movie. (It’s a baggy two and a half hours long, apparently cut down from an initial three hour release.) As people drift in and out of the group over the decade, it’s awkwardly difficult to care. Admittedly, some of the photography is beautiful, but you can’t help feeling that one of the regular motifs in the latter half of the film – the tour bus roaming aimlessly though the landscape – hits a little too close to home.
In the end, Platform is too self-consciously epic for its own good, trying to hit all the key talking points of 1980s’ China and tell a story at the same time. By contrast, Unknown Pleasures (2002) aims a bit lower, and is much more successful. In the Shanxi city of Datong, two young men – Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) – are stuck in a rut of dead end jobs or no jobs at all. In a sneaky parallel with Platform, it takes a group of touring performers to jolt them out of this rut: but this is the early 21st century, so instead of singing the praises of Mao, the group is advertising Mongolian King Liquor. Xiao Ji falls heavily for the group’s dancer Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), but her relationship with a violent loan shark could be a sticking point.
Unknown Pleasures marks the point where Jia moved to digital photography, and he uses the flexibility of the format beautifully in terms of how the camera moves and what it sees. He’s always enjoyed the imagery of people isolated in small, dingy spaces, and now he can show it without having to compromise with the lighting. And that isolation is a key theme in the film, because the three protagonists all come from the first generation born under China’s one-child policy. Unlike their predecessors in the other two movies, they don’t have an extended family to fall back on when times get tough. They only have each other, and sometimes they don’t even have that.
Again, you could argue that Jia is trying too hard to please a Western arthouse audience. He throws in references to In The Mood For Love and Pulp Fiction, and even includes a scene where Xiao Wu the pickpocket attempts to buy a pirate DVD of Xiao Wu the film. (Although to be fair, that’s probably the main way a Chinese viewer would get to see it.) His historical reference points are also broadened for a foreign market, taking in the rise of Falun Gong and the announcement of the Beijing Olympics. And compared with the earlier films, this is much more of a plot-driven affair, with an obvious narrative arc and a climax that pays off on a series of themes that have been quietly set up throughout the story.
As a cineliterate Westerner with a love of Asian culture, I probably should be concerned that Unknown Pleasures appears to have been made specifically to pander to me. But I’m happy to just enjoy it. That pirate DVD gag aside, it quietly plays with the ideas and themes raised in the earlier films, and neatly rounds off the picture of how Chinese society has changed since the death of Mao. Despite the sag in the middle provided by Platform – which some critics would have you believe is the highpoint of Sixth Generation cinema, so what do I know – The Hometown Trilogy is a unique document of a nation in transition.
The Hometown Trilogy is out now on DVD and video on demand from Artificial Eye.