The Criterion Shelf: 8 Films By Jia Zhangke

Bil Antoniou examines 8 films by one of the world's greatest living filmmakers

To hear the cinema of Jia Zhangke described is to brace yourself for dry, dull lectures on the state of the world today. Globalization, modernization, and the abandonment of old communitarian principles in favour of the lures of capitalism–isn’t this precisely what we go to the movies to get away from? To watch his work, however, is to discover worlds as fascinating as anything the George Lucases of the industry could come up with, images of industrial landscapes or brightly lit urban panoramas dazzle the eye without ever engulfing the deeply felt, intelligently created characters that occupy them. That said, he is, in my experience, an acquired taste. The first time I saw The World, I didn’t know what to do with it. I was fascinated by the atmosphere but couldn’t understand its depths. However, with my next venture into his oeuvre, I was, and remain, a massive fan.

Jia Zhangke is considered a member of the Sixth Generation movement in the Chinese cinema canon, up there with Lou Ye (Spring Fever) and Diao Yinan (Wild Goose Lake), characterized by harsher perspectives on their country’s sociopolitical landscape than were the featured in the lush period dramas (Zhang Yimou) of the previous generation. Born in 1970 in Fenyang, Jia began his career as an art student at Shanxi University in Taiyuan, and says that it was after seeing Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth that he was inspired to switch his focus to filmmaking.  He eventually made it into the Beijing Film Academy in 1993, graduating with an hour-long feature, Xiaoshan Going Home, under his belt.

Embarking on his professional career, Jia began with three films set in his home province of Shanxi, made without the support of China’s state-run film bureaucracy and which translated his anxieties about the shifting sands of China’s politics and economy into drama. The third of these, Platform, has been called the masterpiece of the Sixth Generation and turned him into a worldwide arthouse celebrity. Plus, it starred a former dance teacher in her acting debut, Zhao Tao, who would go on to be his muse in all his feature films and, since 2012, his life partner as well. With his fourth feature, The World, he entered the official protection of state approval, and his career has only skyrocketed from there, including winning the Golden Lion in Venice for one of his best, Still Life, and hitting the mainstream circuit with his hits A Touch of Sin and, his best yet, Ash Is Purest White.

Jia Zhangke has had as robust a career as a documentary filmmaker as he has in features, though only one documentary is included in Criterion’s eight-film tribute to him, his hybrid docudrama 24 City. The exclusion of his latest masterpiece is unfortunate, but the collection gives viewers a magnificent opportunity to enter the world of one of cinema’s most exciting directors and, hopefully, patiently soak in his many magnificent works.

Reviews are listed in chronological order, as they are all worth watching.


Xiao Wu (1997)

Jia’s first feature-length film gets right into his concerns with modern-day Chinese society, using non-professional actors and working without a script to tell the tale of an amiable if downbeat protagonist. Xiao Wu is a young man who spends his time picking the pockets of his fellow citizens while his school colleagues have gone on to great accomplishments. His friendship with a karaoke hostess is the only positive connection he makes between lectures from his elders and conflicts with his friends, including an old schoolmate whose success puts Wu’s failures into perspective when he is not invited to the man’s wedding. It has the spacious sense of movement that mark all the director’s works, but it never feels as aimless as its subject, unfolding with the rhythm of real life but containing the compulsion of great drama.


Platform (2000)

Sociopolitical change across the 1980s is the backdrop of Jia Zhangke’s most critically acclaimed film. Admiration for Platform runs so high it inspired the Toronto International Film Festival to name a program and prize after it. A troupe of travelling performers makes up the main cast, their performances at first adhering to the country’s post-Cultural revolutionary exuberance but, as time goes on, they become more enamoured with western culture. This results in a combination of communist and capitalist ideals that affects both politics and personal lives. At the heart of the story are two couples. One of them breaks up when she (Zhao Tao, in her first of many collaborations with the filmmaker) gives up artistry to be a tax collector, the other a passionate love affair that is destroyed when the strong arm of the law discovers that they have been having illegal, premarital sex. The film’s many quiet, unassuming moments all feel spontaneous and unforced, there is good reason why, for many, this is Jia’s masterpiece.


Unknown Pleasures (2002)

Jia Zhangke makes his first foray into digital filmmaking and continues many of the concerns of Platform, namely cultural the unavoidable force of cultural change. This time, however, he focuses on two friends who take two different paths. One lives with his critical mother and dates a nice university girl; the other is street-smart tough guy who is in love with a singer who works promoting a beer company (played with her usual bewitching mystery by Zhao Tao) and isn’t afraid to go up against her loan shark boyfriend. As always with this filmmaker, it’s the moments between words and actions that are the most fascinating, the way in which a sense of spontaneous reality happens on screen despite being performed by actors who are enlisted with the task of delivering a satisfying, resolved narrative.


The World (2004)

Jia received government-approved studio support for the first time and created his most dazzling film yet, a multi-character study set in Beijing’s amusement park that allows its visitors to see all the greatest sites from around the world in one visit. (It includes a 1/3 replica of the Eiffel Tower, recreations of the Pyramids of Giza and more.) Zhao Tao, in her best collaboration with the director yet, plays a performer in the park’s sumptuous live shows who is having an on-again, off-again affair with a security guard. She also strikes up a friendship with one of the women from Mongolia who have come to the park under dubious circumstances to work as hostesses in the Ulan Bator exhibit. The setting is an easily interpreted microcosm of the nation’s response to globalization, crumbling to capitalist temptation with little resistance. However, Jia’s anxieties about this, while not in the least bit subtle, never obscure the humanity of each individual character. As always, he presents deeply moving drama in a manner that always feels natural.


Still Life (2006)

Sanming Han (Jia’s real-life cousin) comes to the Fenjie district looking for the wife and child that left him years earlier. He finds it difficult to track her down as the area is being prepared for demolition and the impending creation of the Three Gorges Dam. Zhao Tao also comes looking for her ex-husband, from whom she’s been estranged for two years, and like Sanming must follow a series of complicated clues from half-interested contacts to find her family. With powerful, deep performances played out against a fascinating vista of sky and water, Jia presents two characters looking to reclaim their past in a place that is literally in the process of destroying it, producing as much heartbreak in the personal story as he generates fascination with its incredible setting.


24 City (2008)

A factory in Chengdu that serviced the airline industry has been closed and will be replaced by a series of luxury apartment buildings called 24 City. This transformation captures Jia’s always socially-conscious imagination and compels him to make a film about change and regret. The film is arranged around eight interviews, some of them with actual former employees of the factory. Others interviews are performed by actors who recite monlogues based on amalgamated testimonies from the overwhelming number of participants who shared their stories with the filmmakers. Joan Chen is exceptional as a woman who recalls being the factory’s “Little Flower”, the local beauty, and Zhao Tao caps off this thoughtful, absorbing experience as a young woman who grew up and was educated in the complex where her parents worked. The information hits hard, but, as always, Jia lets human emotion rule over all.


A Touch of Sin (2013)

Jia heads further into traditional narrative territory with this fascinating quartet of tales set in different parts of the country. Inspired by real events reported by unofficial news sources, all four tales begin with societal frustrations and end in violence. The first tale is about a villager in Shanxi who grows tired of political and corporate corruption and goes on a killing spree with his rifle. The second one shows a Chongqing man who makes money by shooting people on the street and stealing their luxury goods. Third and most popular features Zhao Tao as a receptionist at a spa who is devastated by the end of her relationship with her married lover and is pushed past the brink of tolerance when clients harass her enough to inspire her to use her fruit knife for vengeance. The longest and most poignant tale is saved for last, of a hopeful young man who moves from one job to the next in an effort to get ahead. However, thanks to a society that has set all these characters up to fail, he quickly finds himself at the end of his rope. Stylish and thought-provoking, but unlike the director’s earlier and more meditative works, the film is brightly punctuated by a brisk pace. This film has Jia Zhangke going into more mainstream territory without the slightest feeling of commercial compromise.


Mountains May Depart (2015)

Melodrama is not as successful an experiment for Jia Zhangke as action was in A Touch of Sin. The personal drama of this, his weakest film, isn’t deep or powerful and leaves his allegory hanging out to dry. It’s 1995 and Zhao Tao is at the centre of a love triangle that forces her to choose between the wealthy suitor whom she doesn’t love over the poor man that she does. The narrative moves forward to present day where the emptiness of China’s embrace of capitalism reflects in the characters’ lives, then we move forward still to a futuristic 2025 where the consequences of cultural bankruptcy bear their bitter fruit in the protagonists’ relationships. Jia surprises nobody with his cynical perspective on his country’s confused acceptance of western values, but his storytelling is usually much stronger than this. Zhao is magnificent in the lead role, as always sympathetic and bewitching at the same time, but the final third (in which she barely appears) features a lot of bad acting by performers not comfortable with the English-language dialogue.