Arguably the most capital-I Important international filmmaker to emerge in the last decade, Jia Zhangke is the foremost chronicler of a country in transition. Working in both documentary and narrative (and sometimes a mix of the two), his films, at once intimate and sweeping, chart China’s baby steps towards capitalism, generational shift, and changing topography.
The complete retrospective of Jia’s work at the Museum of Modern Art this month reveals the director to be the spiritual grandson of consummate modernist Antonioni. Like the Italian auteur, Jia’s primary interest is the relationship between character and environment—in particular the industry-scarred landscape, underscored by Jia’s typically plotted compositions that employ an 80 to 20 landscape to human ratio. Unlike Antonioni, however, Jia finds not only crushing alienation in this strange new world but, also, as China experiences the first shocks of globalization, the possibility of connection. Witness, for example, the profoundly touching friendship that springs up between two women working at an amusement park, one Chinese, one Russian, though neither speaks a word of the others’ language, in his stunning examination of globalization and spectacle-as-commodity, “The World” (2004).
“The World,” like all of Jia’s narrative features, effectively mixes the personal and the epic, explores the macro via the micro, by grafting an intimate narrative onto the larger backdrop of Chinese cultural change. In the mysterious and magisterial “Still Life” (2006), then, the Three Gorges Dam project becomes the perfect vehicle for Jia to explore his nation’s changing landscape via a deceptively simple narrative. A man and a woman each search for their estranged spouse, their pursuit made more difficult by the dam’s construction which has displaced entire villages that have now disappeared underwater. The alien-ness of this new landscape is summed up perfectly in the film’s dizzyingly surreal image of a building launching like a spaceship into the sky.
Along with “The World” and his semi-documentary “24 City” (2008), “Still Life” is also exhibit A in the case for Jia as one of the few directors who has successfully made the digital aesthetic—he has worked in video since his third feature “Unknown Pleasures” (2002)—part and parcel of his style. His dazzling HD compositions—so startlingly crisp they’re almost surreal and so boldly, brightly colorful they nearly hurt your eyes—are the brave new aesthetic for the changing, increasingly unfamiliar world he chronicles.
Meanwhile, “Useless” (2007) and “East” (2006), two of Jia’s lesser known documentary works, each chronicle artists—fashion designer Ma Ke and painter Liu Xiaodong, respectively—whose work explore China’s cultural heritage. These films show a formal control as remarkable as that on display in Jia’s fiction films (indeed, the director even lifts scenes wholesale from “East” for “Still Life”) and make it clear that Jia is, first and foremost, a documentarian—a chronicler of time and place—who happens to make fiction films.
Though his 2000 film “Platform” remains his most lauded work, for me, Jia’s best film is its follow up, “Unknown Pleasures.” More than just another “disaffected youth picture,” “Unknown Pleasures” carries the confusion and contradictions facing China’s “birth control generation” on its shoulders, with a final scene—a masterpiece of irony—that perfectly summarizes China’s generational sea change. The cheesy Mandopop songs that float in and out of the film and throughout all of the director’s works provide an ironic counterpoint to the proceedings: the days of rigid Maoist indoctrination may have passed but pop’s insipid, sentimental lyrics play like a new kind of proto-capitalistic mass opiate. It’s the contradiction that lies at the heart of both Jia’s films and China’s transitioning state.
Jia Zhangke: A Retrospective runs March 5-20 at the Museum of Modern Art.