(2002) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
Though I recall when this film came out a couple of years ago, I hadn’t really put it on my list to view. But reading recently about Zhang Ke Jia’s latest film to get theatrical release in the United States, Still Life (2006), I decided to queue this one up. Still Life has gotten a lot of positive praise in reputable publications, though I hadn’t read much about his work before.
Jia’s work, as I have read, is part of a movement in Chinese cinema toward a style akin to Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité. Jia is noted for his long takes and shooting in parts of China that are drastically different from much of the cinema that has been exported from that country in the past 15 years. His films are also noted for themes of youthful alienation against a backdrop of China’s cultural and physical landscape. And much of that is evident in this film.
Unknown Pleasures follows the story of two friends and a would-be pop star that one of the two is in love with. The two friends are from fairly low rungs on the financial ladder, Bin Bin lives with his mother in a small but middle class apartment, while his friend lives with his father in a very cramped little room. When they discover a single American dollar, they are wowed by it and cannot estimate its value, though it following the dollar through the film, it seems clear that it represents capitalist wealth, its lure, and their lack of understanding of it.
The girl, a would-be star, who dances and sings in small local promotions for a liquor company, is the girlfriend of a moderately small-time criminal. The love triangle, as it were, is akin to those of movies with great drama, where the figures are bigger on the world stage, the beautiful and talented moll of the city’s top crime boss or something. But here, the people are all on the lower rungs, not the lowest, but still figured in contrast to those types of narratives. The criminal is a loan shark who carries a gun and has a young gang of henchmen to parcel out his beatings. The girl, whose talent is moderate at best and whose beauty is more simple than luminous, is in her early twenties and has a veneer of importance that hides her real self, as simple as her moderately cheap wig that she wears to define her “look”.
There is a sadness, a longing in these characters, yet so undefined. Bin Bin has a younger girlfriend who is about to go away to university, she has a pathway out of their world. Bin Bin attempts to join the army, an opportunity to become one of the Beijing Soldiers, to move out and away, but finds out that he has hepatitis and is rejected. They have little, they are lost against the landscape, physical, societal, and cultural, and of change.
Jia uses television and popular culture that comes through it to demonstrate the time and place of events, including the announcement that Beijing had won the opportunity to host the 2008 Olympic games as well as a controversial landing of a U.S. spy plane on mainland China. But television is how the characters get their cultural information, popular music, movies, and ideas.
What struck me was the physical landscapes, the crumbled, torn up city, the new highway, still yet unopened, the bus station, where Bin Bin lolls sadly. Having recently watched Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who photographs urban and industrial landscapes in China, the physicality that Jia works in here, is definitely part of those same worlds. Filmed in Datong, Shanxi, it’s an isolated life, alienated, and strange.
I am very interested in seeing Still Life, and I hope to catch it while it’s still in the cinemas here (if it still is) because one of my only peeves of the film was that it was shot on digital video. As I understand it, shooting on digital video is key to the production of Jia’s films, keeping them cheap, underground, adding to its documentary feel. But the framing and movement of the camera and the images were beautiful, though some shots, particularly inside, in fluorescent light, had the look of cheap television dramas, which kind of hurt the feeling and aesthetic. Maybe in the theater, as opposed to DVD, this might not be such a striking thing. And anyways, that is just one opinion on the style.