I was first introduced to Jia Zhangke a few years ago when I chanced to purchase a quasi-legit dvd of his 2013 film A Touch of Sin (天注定 tiān zhù dìng) from one of the street shops in Dongmen Plaza. I’ve seen quite a few Chinese movies in my four years here in Shenzhen, and for the most part I’ve been unimpressed – with an honorable exception going to the Hong Kong cinema of the 1970s and 80s, which I absolutely love, though for very different reasons.
A Touch of Sin is the Taxi Driver of Chinese cinema, which would make Jia Zhangke its Martin Scorcese. If that seems like high praise, it might actually not be high enough. In his heyday, Scorcese had his fingers on the pulse of New York City – Jia has his fingers on the pulse of his entire country.
Most of Chinese cinema is marked by fantastic unreality. That’s not necessarily a problem, and in fact, can even be a virtue. If I have to choose between cheesy heroism with a nationalist subtext, and the nihilistic, vapid degeneracy of much of contemporary American cinema, I’ll take the former, thank you very much. But one can only take so much superpower kung fu and Japan-bashing at one time.
By contrast, A Touch of Sin, and pretty much all of Jia’s other films, are almost straight cinéma vérité. I have never seen the look and feel of 21st century China, both its urban environments and its countrysides, captured better than in Jia’s films. His characters – none of whom are played by established actors, though some have become more well-known because of his films – are entirely realistic, and their life stories mirror the lives of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people in this rapidly-changing country.
The four stories woven together in A Touch of Sin were all inspired by real people and events. Most will be unknown to Westerners, with the possible exception of the suicides at Foxconn, where iPhones are made – but that won’t matter. The characters and stories are emblematic of deep problems in Chinese society, such as the systemic corruption which President Xi Jinping has targeted in recent years. Also dealt with are the problems of migrant workers from the countryside who come into China’s cities and must struggle to earn their living and survive in an unfamiliar environment. Finally, the film also touches on relations between men and women in a society in which concubinage and prostitution are both long-standing traditions.
Jia’s most recent film is 2015’s Mountains May Depart (山河故人 shānhé gùrén). While its reviews have not been quite as favorable as A Touch of Sin‘s, I frankly fail to see why. It is every bit as thoughtful and thought-provoking, and every bit as relevant to a discussion of the complexities of life in contemporary China. Though lacking the violence of its predecessor, the problem it addresses is arguably even more fundamental than those in A Touch of Sin – the dissolution of the family.
Mountains May Depart tells the story of one Chinese family, in three different blocks of time. In the first, which takes place in 1999, the main character, played by Jia’s muse and wife Zhao Tao, faces an archetypal choice between love and money. In the second and third acts, she must live with the consequences of her choice.
Divorce, once a rarity in Chinese society due to the ancient cult of the family, has become increasingly commonplace, especially among the wealthy and middle-class, for whom it seems to be simply another aspect of being modern and cosmopolitan. But the material abundance being enjoyed by the nouveaux riche isn’t always able to act as a buffer against the consequences of dehumanized behavior in a world devoid of values.
Another problem that China faces is the number of its wealthy citizens who are leaving, or who want to. I recall a conversation between two Chinese people that I was privy to. One, a young woman, had just returned from her first trip to America, while the other, an older woman, had been there several times in the past. The older woman said to the younger, “Doesn’t it make you feel like we live in a garbage dump?” She was in the process of sending her daughter off to school in Canada, and was making plans to expatriate her entire family to there or the U.S.
The third act of the film is set in 2025 and contains some interesting speculations about the future. It is set in Australia, where a part of the family has relocated, as indeed many Chinese already have.
While Jia’s films are distinctly Chinese, as is their subject matter, it is precisely in their intimate specificity that they transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries and become deeply meaningful stories that anyone can relate to.
In English, “to have one’s finger on the pulse” of something means to have a good understanding of it, or be aware of its most recent developments as they happen. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, pulse diagnosis is a fine art which allows a skilled practitioner to diagnose the ills of the entire body, by simply feeling the pulse of the radial artery at the wrist. I have experienced this myself, and can verify that someone skilled in the art can have remarkable insight into a person’s state of health.
New Yorker film critic Richard Brody called Jia Zhangke simply “one of the best and most important directors in the world” today. He’s not wrong.
Jia’s other films include:
The Pickpocket (小武 xiǎo wǔ) 1997
Platform (站台 zhàntái) 2000
Unknown Pleasures (任逍遙 rèn xiāo yáo) 2002
The World (世界 shìjiè) 2004
Still Life (三峡好人 sānxiá hǎorén) 2006
24 City (二十四城记 èr shí sì chéng jì) 2008