REVIEW: Bold, Impassioned, and Vivid, Zhang Yang's "Quitting"
by Ray Pride
[EDITOR'S NOTE: indieWIRE originally published this review in September 2001 as part of our Toronto 2001 coverage. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film Friday.]
Some of the backlash against the critical and popular success of Ang Lee's
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" consisted of the complaint, "Well, it's nothing amazing. It's just a very well made commercial movie." There's a pause, and the complainer would usually add, "Like the studios used to make." A-ha.
Zhang Yang's second feature, 1999's "Shower" was a movie like the studios used to make -- intimate, funny, brimming with intimacy with just the right
spice of sentiment. It's the kind of movie I enjoy, then itch with guilty questions only a long-on-the-job critic bothers to ask: was it calculated? Was it too feel-good? Was it made for a Western audience more than a domestic audience? Still, Zhang's talent for characterization, pacing and mood was everywhere in evidence, making such questions less rhetorical than mere grumpiness.
And now we have "Quitting" (recently acquired by Sony Pictures Classics). Bold, impassioned and vivid in its portrayal of a damaged life brought back to health, it tempts greatness. There are so many comparisons to be made. Jia Hongsheng is a popular Chinese actor. (Recently, he's appeared in "Frozen" and "Suzhou River.") But he disappeared for a few years, creating all manner of urban legend in China: dead; derelict; strung-out on drugs? Drugs were the true story. Four years of this 34-year-old actor's life were spend maintaining. He quit acting; he quit trying. "Quitting" starts like a slacker story. Jia won't leave his room in the Beijing apartment he shares with his sister. His parents, who work in a regional theater in the provinces, come to the city to see if they can help this wayward son, sitting in the dark watching "Taxi Driver" repeatedly, fixating on John Lennon and the Beatles, eventually imagining he is Lennon's son.
Jia becomes an actor who no longer has a self; an addict who functions only when smoking heroin; a relative who relates only through conflict. Again, the material is suggestive, seeming to question whether we are all only empty vessels for the dreams of others, the expectations of our family, the needs of society. Hearing voices, punishing himself, Jia seems by mid-film a schizophrenic brimming with Western influences.
But layers continue to unfold. Themes bubble up painlessly, never seeming the stuff of thesis, only of human drama: Does privilege spoil the artist? Are the sensitive more prone to breakdowns? But Zhang's ultimate triumph is in depicting how cycles can be broken, by an individual working in concert with others. I don't know whether that's a reassuring or a subversive thought within contemporary Chinese society, but from a modestly-informed outsider's perspective, "Quitting" seems to be one of the rawest and most honest films from China in years. But there's no raggedness in the craft. Amid "Reds"-style interviews with those who know Jia, Zhang even manages to work in the rehearsal and performance of a play about his struggles, and like Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Good Men, Good Women," the revelation of layers of artifice becomes in itself moving, another device to demonstrate the characters' conflicts.
All the serious language aside, "Quitting" is very, very funny. Like "Shower," there are scenes that engage the funnybone as much as the intellect, and at the best moments, the sweetly laughable absurdity of existence is portrayed with uncommon finesse.
The performances are seamless, which is more astonishing when one discovers that Zhang uses non-actors to play themselves, from Jia's parents to the inmates of a mental institution where he was kept when he finally kicked drugs. A worthy Chinese entry that worked in the same mode was Zhang Yimou's heartbreaking "Not One Less," but Zhang's accomplishment is akin to that of virtuosos in the contemporary Iranian mode, such as Makmahlbaf and Kiarostami, taking empathy to a superb, wrenching level of intensity while staying eminently accessible.
While the language seems equivocal on the page, I have to agree with the
Festival's Noah Cowan, whose catalog entry calls "Quitting" " a major work
from an emerging master." There is craft and hurt and redemption and the only calculation to make here is, why don't we insist on such quality, such humanity, such bold emotions, from U.S. pictures, whether from the congloms or the deepest thickets of Indiewood?
[Ray Pride, indieWIRE Monthly's industry columnist, writes for many
publications, including Filmmaker, Cinema Scope and Chicago's Newcity.]