So soon after Moonlight and Certain Women, another movie in three parts. In 1999, Zhao Tao (I Wish I Knew, A Touch of Sin) is friends with sharp-chinned coal miner Liangzi (Jingdong Liang, Tao’s Platform costar) and petulant boss Jinsheng. When the boss decides he wants to marry her, he pulls strings to stay close to her and gets his former friend fired.

2014: Liangzi has health problems and a family in another town, moves back to the city and sees Tao again. Her father dies, and her son Daole visits from Australia for the funeral but barely knows her.

2025: Daole enlists his university English teacher (Sylvia Chang, the boss in Office) to translate conversations with his dad, now a gun dealer, then to Katy’s chagrin, Daole starts sleeping with the teacher. He thinks about visiting his mom, decides not to. Back in China, Mom dances alone in the snow.

N. Bahadur:

Neither man is willing to let Zhao make her own decision, both only desire to possess her. So in this sense Zhao’s sporadic weaving in and out of the narrative reveal both tradition and capitalism stifling femininity.

Two motorbike rebels meet at the site of a tomato-truck accident: Dahai (seen on the movie poster with a shotgun) and Fuzzy Hat San’er, who kills a few illegal toll-takers a few minutes prior. First let’s follow Dahai (Jiang Wu of Shower and To Live), who is openly contemptuous of his corrupt bosses at the coal mine, finally confronting the big boss himself, at which point Dahai gets his ass whupped on an airport runway. Doesn’t take long for Dahai to heal up, collect himself, and take brutal shotgun-revenge on his bosses plus anyone who gets in his way. It’s about the most blunt anti-corruption half-hour screed I’ve seen, showing the problem then proposing a swift solution – and coming from arthouse slowpoke Jia it’s pretty shocking.

It’s an episodic movie, but more interconnected through characters, locations and themes than something like Wild Tales. In a larger city, Fuzzy Hat (Wang Baoqiang of Blind Shaft and Romancing in Thin Air) has money troubles, and a solution: purse-snatching and murder. Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao, just seen in I Wish I Knew) can’t get her boyfriend to leave his wife, goes to work as a receptionist at a masseuse parlor and when some drunken dudes assume they can buy her, she cuts them up. Young Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) has shitty luck in the workplace and jumps out his window.

Zhao Tao, never more badass:

A. Cook:

The film paints a bleak picture of modern China for the people in a position of powerlessness. Setting each story in a different region of the country further illustrates this sense of widespread exploitation … Each act of violence is a tragic climax in the lives of the characters who can take no more of the injustices that surround them.

R. Koehler in Cinema Scope:

Jia is sending out an early signal that his film is directed from and for a cathartic response, and as we observe his four characters across four segments — roughly traversing a geographic line across the Mainland from north to south and through the seasons — they operate out of gut instinct and momentary impulse. The contemplative young intellectual artists of Platform are long gone — or likely, by now in the new China, have sold out — and in their place are desperate people doing what they need to do to survive.

Fuzzy Hat and his neglected son:

Marie-Pierre Duhamel:

The last two shots of the film show Zhao Tao’s Xiaoyu watching an ancient representation of her destiny, and the audience of the opera looking into camera. The audience is looking at the audience. This is what consistency is about in Jia’s world: to lyrically recreate reality as a folk singer improvises a ballad, so that the untold stories come to light, and that everyone hopefully remembers them and sings along.

Her essay at Mubi puts the movie in essential context. It seems the most obvious of Jia’s films – I don’t mean that as an insult, since I felt the others all went over my stupid head – but even so, there’s so much depth I missed. And of course the film looks as splendid as Jia’s others, which is what keeps me watching them even when I don’t know what they’re about. Won best screenplay at Cannes, the year of Blue is the Warmest Color, Only Lovers Left Alive and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Interview film, Shanghai stories, people talking about their parents and their own childhoods. Many stories end in death or disappearance. Very stylish looking doc, with some non-doc segments, including a recurring ghost woman (Zhao Tao of Still Life, Platform, The World).

Clips from a 1959 film by a different Wang Bing (the Coal Money director was born in ’67), from Red Persimmon, Two Stage Sisters, Spring in a Small Town, Flowers of Shanghai, Days of Being Wild, Antonioni’s China, and interviews with filmmakers and participants.

Wei Wei, star of Spring in a Small Town:

Tony Rayns:

Jia was invited to make a film “about Shanghai” to mark the opening of the Shanghai World Expo … his idea was to focus mainly on émigrés from Shanghai – politicians, soldiers, artists, gangsters – and to follow some of those émigrés to their subsequent bolt-holes in Taiwan and Hong Kong. … No film made anywhere has previously attempted a pan-Chinese view of the fall-out from the conflicts in China’s civil war.

I don’t have the context Tony Rayns has, have missed a lot in Jia’s films, but at least this one was fully narrated (and quite beautiful).

S. Kraicer:

[The interviewees] are mostly famous, and predominantly from the arts world: this is a top-down historical chronicle, unlike the bottom-up small-town tales that made Jia’s name 10 years ago … Many of the stories come from Shanghai’s two brief “golden ages.” The swinging cosmopolitan (and colonially controlled, gangster-ridden, Japanese-threatened) jazz age of the 1930s is the first. The second revival followed the Second World War during the civil war that culminated in the Communist Party victory in 1949 and the dispersal of many of the film’s interviewees to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The Venice Film Festival posted 70-ish short films online to commemorate their 70th anniversary. I watched them gradually over the past year. Already rounded up my favorites and least favorites – this is the rest.

Krzysztof Zanussi

Kids haul a film can containing Zanussi’s Venice prize-winning A Year of the Quiet Sun from a trash can.

Sono Sion

“Cinema’s Future is My Future” title cards. An excited man films things in a neon room. A crowd chants “seventy!”

Antonio Capuano

Green-haired teen zombies carry video cubes on subway station escalators.

Tariq Teguia

“Still, tomorrow’s cinema will be saying: someone is here.”
He has a Film Socialisme poster. Show-off.

James FrancoThe Future of Cinema

FF Coppola says he hopes filmmaking professionalism will be destroyed and regular people will be able to make them. Then some vandals trash a house and it looks like we’re watching the framing story of V/H/S. Then all goes berzerk, and Franco appears, laughing amidst the chaos.

Pablo Larraín

Camera perched atop one of those sail-surfboards looking down, piano playing a riff on “My Blue Heaven”.

Nicolás Pereda

Single shot of couple in bed playing on their phones, unseriously discussing getting married.

Wang Bing

A guy works the land, comes home to his horrible, fly-infested cave.

Kim Ki-dukMy Mother

Kim films his own mother going to the store (slowly and painfully), buying cabbage and prepping dinner for his visit.

Edgar Reitz

Franz Kafka is moved by a film, walks outside into the present-day world of everpresent video screens and advertising. Searching for the source of his quote (“Went to the movies. Wept.”) led to an interesting-looking book called Kafka Goes to the Movies.

Pablo TraperoCinema Is All Around

iPhone videos of tourists taking photos at a waterfall while Doris Day sings Que Sera Sera.

Jia Zhang-ke

People watch old movies on new screens.
Unusually commercial-looking style for Jia.

João Pedro RodriguesAllegoria Della Prudenza

Grave sites (there are multiple) for Kenji Mizoguchi in the whispering wind. Cameo appearance by the grave of Portuguese director Paulo Rocha.

Peter Ho-Sun ChanThe Future Was In Their Eyes

Photo montage of the eyes of many dead filmmakers.

Isabel Coixet

A square little film sketch with bouncy music.

Haile Gerima

He’s in an edit suite reviewing Harvest: 3000 Years. “I am incarcerated in the historical circumstances of Africa. Our cinema is a hostaged cinema.”

Atom EgoyanButterfly

He lets us see video of an Anton Corbijn gallery exhibit before deleting it from his phone. “Frankly I can’t be bothered to store more useless memories that I’ll never look at again, so I have to make some choices of what to lose.”

Hong Sang-soo50:50

Guy smokes with a stranger, tells her that his wife, sitting on a nearby bench, is terribly ill.

Celina Murga

Theater full of kids watch a movie.

Hala Alabdalla

Driving through Syria shooting through a window with a beard-n-sunglasses silhouette stuck on. Then: close-ups of eyeballs.

Pietro Marcello

Silent stock footage and clips of film equipment at work, then a Guy Debord quote.

Jan CvitkovicI Was a Child

Nice moving camera while narrator tells of when she first realized that everything is god.

Jazmín López

Camera follows a trail of discarded objects to two identically-dressed girls making out.

Amir NaderiDon’t Give Up

Aged film of dust storm on a dead sea cut with some present-day film storage room.

Alexey German Jr.5000 Days Ahead

Single travelling shot, people on a beach discussing movies of the future, personal experiences using neural transmitters, “like dreams with subtitles.”

Benoît Jacquot

Single take of a girl looking into camera.

John Akomfrah

B/W travel footage rapidly edited, closing with titles about the Boston Marathon bombing.

Shekhar Kapur

Bunch of short fragments using the white balance and focus in nonstandard ways.

Davide FerrarioLighthouse

Open-air cinema is playing Buster Keaton, shown with nice helicopter(?) shot.

Ermanno OlmiLa Moviola

So that’s what a moviola looks like. Hands and a sort of stop-motion/time-lapse ghost set it up and start it rolling.

Giuseppe Piccioni

We’re at a party, dude goes to get a drink for the girl in center of shot, and she slowly glides with the camera into the other room, audio from a climactic scene from Double Indemnity in her head, then back again.

Brillante MendozaThe Camera

A movie is being filmed, shots of people across town already enjoying it on TV, but back on set someone has run off with the camera.

Monte Hellman

Slate, couple at a cafe, he pays and leaves while she silently cries, the traffic noise dialing down, slow pull in, then “cut”.

Teresa VillaverdeAmapola

Poem recital like a horror-movie bible reading, “jackals that the jackals would despise,” blurry TV sets with close-ups of faces upon them.

Guido LombardiSensa Fine

Last shot of a film, the lead actors kiss, then won’t stop kissing.

Shirin Neshat

Scenes from October and Potemkin played with a stop-motion-looking low frame-rate.

The first post of my special four-part In Over My Head series, in which I watched some movies I didn’t fully understand, and can’t adequately describe, or even remember properly. I must have been tired last week.

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A big title on the decade list. Not only did it show up on multiple lists, but it’s one of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s top 100 of all time, and the Telegraph called it the masterpiece of the “sixth generation”. I’ve now seen five of Jia’s movies and I probably like this one second-best to The World, but I don’t even love The World very much. I watched it once in theaters, then a year later when Cinema Scope sent me the DVD (to replace the announced Colossal Youth) I just tossed it onto the shelf, thinking “don’t suppose I’ll ever watch this again.” I find a great Jia movie less desirable than a pretty-good Brian De Palma movie, and since Jia won the consensus critical vote for auteur of the decade in Film Comment while winning my own WTF Award of 2009 for Dong and Still Life, I am clearly missing something.

First, a quote from the esteemed Acquarello. Despite all the big, big words he uses, this is my favorite short description of the film that I’ve found:

An estranged and depersonalized chronicle that illustrates the marginalization of humanity under the turmoil of profound national change…
Similar to the plight of the perennially dislocated acting troupe in Theo Angelopoulos’ epic film, The Travelling Players, the evolution of the itinerant performers – from disseminators of peasant propaganda, to champions of an eroding, indigenous culture, and eventually, to gauche (and unintentionally comical) assimilators of commercial pop culture – is a poignant articulation of a generation foundering in their own seeming irrelevance and figurative exile from within their homeland, desperately struggling for inclusion and a sense of place in their country’s future. It is this sentiment of cultural displacement that is illustrated in the repeated encounters between Ming-liang and Ruijuan among the ruins of a disused ancient fortress: an elegiac image of unrequited love lost in the expansive and formidable landscape of a silent, unarticulated, and disconnected human history.

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During the first hour of the movie (the “peasant propaganda” section) I wrote: “it must be tiring to be that nationalistic all the time.” During the last hour (the “unintentionally comical” section) I noted the group was calling themselves The All Star Rock ‘n’ Breakdance Electronic Band.

Cui Mingliang, is our sorta-hero, a glasses-wearing bellbottoms-wearing so-called artist who doesn’t seem to believe much in anything he’s doing, just going along with the group. He meets with his girl regularly, but they never seem to fully connect, and when he comes home from a tour at the end, she has become a cop or a commie or something. Camera is mostly stock-still, but not afraid to pan around when outdoors. Whoa, does the movie really end with some girl and her baby playing around a teapot? Since I have no wisdom, here are more helpful quotes.

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AO Scott: “The story, which unfolds episodically over more than three hours, might be described as a Boogie Nights about socialist cultural politics instead of pornography.”

Senses of Cinema:

That Jia shows the negative consequences of this economic revolution goes without saying but his imperatives are non-judgmental and totally undogmatic. His cinema belongs to a humanistic tradition in the larger ecumenical sense but Jia’s style is buffeted by postmodern means and a dedication to realism. At the same time, Jia associates his humanity with a feeling for home. Home is Fenyang, which to Jia, acts as a microcosm of China itself. Fenyang shows the “original face” of China. Jia depicts the fundamentally harsh conditions of the backwater that is Fenyang as the wheels of the market economy turn, driving the residents of Fenyang into the modern age and leaving many by the wayside.

Jia himself makes a surprisingly good interview subject.
“A hundred years ago, if you felt lonely, you would write a poem. A hundred years later, if you felt lonely, you might make a movie. Such problems persist.”

S. Teo: “But your movies are banned inside China, and in fact, they have been mostly seen outside of China, in foreign countries.”
JZ: “This is a fact. This is the most embarrassing and tragic aspect of being a Chinese filmmaker. … Then again, Xiao Wu is quite widely seen in China because there are pirated VCDs being circulated. So I have conflicting emotions. My film is being pirated on the one hand, but on the other hand, it is one method of getting my film shown. I feel embarrassed and helpless.”

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Jia again:

I use a lot of long shots. If the audience can see things in there, that’s good, if they can’t, so be it. I don’t want to impose too many things onto the audience. For instance, in Platform, I used only two close-ups. One was the close-up of the postcard that Zhang Jun sent from Guangzhou. It’s not that there are special situations where I wanted to hold back some information. I don’t want to impose a message onto the audience. I want to give them a mood and within that mood, you can see things that you want, or you can’t see things. My films are rather challenging for the audience. They are not very clearly stated to the extent where the audience can see clearly the objects they want to see – this pen or this watch. If they don’t notice it, they don’t notice it. It’s not that I am being indifferent. Through all these, I am imparting a director’s attitude, how he sees the world and the cinema. What I mean to say is that it’s only an attitude because you can never be absolutely objective. When you need somebody to look at something, it’s no longer objective. There is no absolute objectivity, there is attitude, and through this attitude, there is an ideal.

Mr. Grunes: “Some reviewers have called the film ‘static’ – technically, an odd claim given the film’s prolific use of moving cameras (pans, trackings, fixed cameras in moving vehicles), but a claim that makes emotional sense.”

Aha, Jia also says the whistling teapot at the end is meant to evoke a train whistle, the train having the same meaning of escape from the small-town ordinary as it does in Pather Panchali. He gives a very good interview, plainly explaining his style and intentions – and, horror of horrors, he says he prefers the shorter cut of the movie, the version I watched, not the elusive 3+ hour so-called director’s-cut.
Eat it, Film Comment.

I assume this was on my must-see list because a bunch of New Yorker critics put it on their best-of-year lists paired with Still Life. Given how unimpressed I was with Still Life overall, I should’ve known better than to seek out its lesser-known companion piece. But I’m also drawn to 70-minute movies and figured it couldn’t hurt (it did; it put me to sleep).

We meet a painter at Three Gorges Dam.

Later he goes to Thailand.

Recommended listening: Psalm 69 by Ministry.

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Supposedly “Dong” means “East” in Mandarin – not to be confised with Tsai Ming-liang’s Dong, which means “The Hole” in Taiwanese.

Ian Johnston for Bright Lights:

A week after starting on Dong, Jia decided to make Still Life, from then on shooting the two films in parallel. In fact, the films share some of the same footage, including nonprofessional actor Han Sanming. Han’s appearance in both films playing a demolition worker alongside real workers raises some interesting questions about the “documentary” nature of Dong. It seems to share here the aesthetics of Jia’s fiction filmmaking, where questions of form – the composition of the image, the placement and movement or lack of movement of the camera, shot length – have as important a role as a film’s content, and the way that content reflects a social reality. This slippage between documentary and artifice in Dong is interesting, but the film itself is a minor work of limited appeal. One of its problems is that although Jia feels a generational and artistic affinity with Liu, Liu’s painting style – the focus of Dong – is of the most banal representational realism, far away from the challenges of Jia’s aesthetics. Moreover, the second half of Dong is very weak, with the scenes in Bangkok, in striking contrast to those in Fengjie, appearing touristic and inauthentic.

Scott Tobias: “In every case, the backdrops of Jia’s films are extraordinary: Momentous, politically engaged, and strongly attuned to the consequences of progress on a macro scale. And in every case, he also seems oddly incapable of doing anything interesting in the foreground.”

I can’t remember according to who was this the greatest film of 2006 (or ’07 or ’08, depending when they saw it) but I was predictably underwhelmed. Having seen The World and Unknown Pleasures, I kept my whelm-expectations low, so I was only mildly underwhelmed, but still…

A nice, straightforward story… woman is searching for her husband who went missing two years ago to obtain a divorce. We’re on the Yangtze (flood levels are lower than in the documentary since this one was shot sooner) but this movie has less of a tourist feel, sticks with the characters instead of reveling in landscapes. Don’t know which approach I preferred.

Quiet movie, medium-paced with lots of breathing room. Unexceptionally serious-artfilmesque for long stretches. But then there’s the aliens. One scene with a darting UFO in the sky, one awesome bit where a statue becomes a rocket and blasts off, and the final shot: the woman leaving town, looking back at a man walking a tightrope between two buildings unexplained. I am all for more weirdness in movies, but the weirdness here seemed to be wedged in where it didn’t belong.

According to IMDB, all the actors in this were in all the director’s other films (two of which I’ve seen, but I barely remember the films let alone the actors).

I hope I figure out what everyone is on about, watch this again sometime with a new appreciation for its rich subtexts and symbolism and emotional impact, and come back to revise this post, embarrassed that I once called such a masterpiece underwhelming and unexceptional. I surely enjoyed it more than The World (and 4-5 times more than Unknown Pleasures) so I’m getting closer anyway.