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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 filmâ€™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.