Director Jia Zhangke dropped beneath my radar, for some reason, until I saw Still Life (Sanxia Haoren, 2006); that presented me with the enticing prospect of ‘catching up’ on some terrific films. Xiao Wu (China-Hong Kong, 1997), his first feature, was heavily influenced by Italian neo realists and Bresson’s Pickpocket (France, 1959); his film was also known as Pickpocket in some countries. Xiao Wu features location shooting and non-actors in a tale of a petty thief who finds life in ‘new’ China is passing him by.
Xiao Wu became the first of the ‘hometown’ trilogy and it focuses on one character who’s failing to engage with the emerging capitalism. The second film, Platform (Zhantai, Hong Kong-China-Japan-France, 2000), is more ambitious in its scope as portrays the changes in a state-run theatre troupe from the late ‘70s to the late ‘80s of the Tiananmen Square massacre by which time it has been privatised. The third film, Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao, S.Korea-Japan-France-China, 2002), portrays a whole ‘lost generation’; born post-Mao they don’t have any meaning in their lives other than the pursuit of money and women (the protagonists are a pair of male teenagers).
All the films shot are shot in and around Fenyang, a ‘middle of nowhere’ place, and one of the fascinating aspects of the trilogy is this rundown setting and the people (who are real and not extras) in it. ‘Middle of nowhere’ in the middle of China is a long way away from most places but children play skipping in alleys, just as the do everywhere else in the world.
Although not as surreal as the later Venice Golden Lion winner Still Life, the naturalism Xiao Wu’s visual style – much of it handheld camera – doesn’t mean the mise en scene isn’t expressive. Greens and reds are prominent sometimes submerging scenes in colour expressionately reflecting the protagonist’s stagnation. Whilst his boyhood companions make something of their lives, though their ’success’ is not something that Jia is necessarily celebrating, Xiao Wu drifts through petty theft unable to connect with women or his family: a character also common in all nations. The final shot of Xiao’s humiliation lingers long after the credits.
The film was initially banned in China and lauded in the West; we like celebrating what others ban as it shows off our tolerance. In the west censorship is often economic: if it can’t make money we’re not going to show it. Clearly the censors noticed the lack of celebration of China’s growing economic prosperity. As in Still Life we see characters that are living lives in transition, looking for roots where they no longer exist.
Whilst Xiao Wu focused on one individual experiencing the transition to capitalism, Platform follows a theatrical troupe during the 1980s, a period of vast change as Deng Xiaoping instituted economic changes. Jia Zhangke’s second feature is stylistically very different from the handheld realism of Xiao Wu; often the motionless camera observes the action in long takes. Micheal Berry, in his excellent BFI Film Classic book on the trilogy, compares the style to Ozu; I was reminded of Miklos Jansco where action often wonders offscreen only to return.
Despite the stylisation the film still feels realist; location shooting and non-professional actors and the ordinary lives of the protagonists suggest we’re seeing an authentic vision of a Chinese backwater. Berry mentions that the DVD cut, Jia’s preferred version, is an hour shorter than the original and a lot of explicatory material has been excised. That might be one of the reasons I was occasionally confused as to what was going on. Similarly, I didn’t pick up on all the cultural references; however, that’s part of the point of watching ‘world’ cinema: to learn.
Although there are realist aspects, the film also has almost-surreal moments. For example when Zhong Ping goes to a meeting with a new perm, a signifier of modernity, she’s the butt of jokes; ‘you look like a flamenco dancer’. Cut to the same setting, a run-down hall, with Zhong dancing in a resplendent red flamenco dress. Similarly, another scene is interrupted by a ‘one child parade’; however that wasn’t contrived as these occurred during the late ’70s.
Jia also swamps the mise en scene in blue (all trucks in China seem to be blue!), red and green also predominate. This stylisation aesthetises the film suggesting the film is more than reflecting people’s lives but a statement about ’80s China.
Unknown Pleasures is probably the grimmest of the three. If the eponymous character of Xiao Wu is one person being left behind by economic development in China, the teenage protagonists of Unknown Pleasures represent a whole generation whose lives are being destroyed by wholesale changes in society.
The title, as in Platform, is a reference to a Taiwanese pop song (and, also, tangentially, to Joy Division) and western, and westernised, popular culture infuses the film from the ‘bob’ wig worn by would-be singer Qiao Qiao to the attempted bank robbery – both inspired by Pulp Fiction (US, 1994). Qiao, though, is in the hands of local gangster and her performances are purely commercial; adverts for King Mongolian beer. It’s the logical progression from Platform, where the theatrical troupe start as state-run and end up as a business. In Unknown Pleasures selling is all that matters.
Jia portrays capitalism as soulless; or rather, it eats away at our souls as all we want is money. In China, of course, everything is magnified because of its size, so there are a lot of soulless people ‘growing up’ in China. Jia focuses on the losers, but no doubt the winners will also be spiritually empty.