24 City

24 City (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 01/29/10

It’s not like I don’t have aspirations to be more read, more appreciated, attract more readers, but the bottom line is the way that I do this film diary thing is that I write about the films that I see, the films that interest me, not the films that just come out every Friday and draw the dollars into the theater or even the “big” DVD rentals of the week.  Case in point is 24 City, a film by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Ke Jia who probably fewer than 1% of film viewers will have ever heard nor will ever see the films produced by this fascinating director.

The difference for me is that while on a jag of his films, having watched Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004), and Still Life (2006), I read about his film 24 City, a film about a Chinese munitions/airplane factory that was like a pseudo-pre-fab city and its transition into modern deluxe housing, I was totally excited.  I was feeling like “This is a film I want to see!” and it took some months to come here, and then ultimately to DVD/Video rather than theatrical release despite its playing at the Cannes Film Festival.

Who is going to be reading my damn film writing with the same interests as me?  Fucking nobody.

Hey, I get it.  But it’s something I committed to almost 8 years ago and still use for a crazy outlet of my own thoughts, my own discovery of cinema, world cinema, contemporary cinema, historical cinema, trash cinema, DVD’s, genre films, all whatever fucking interests me.  How many people who will even stumble on this (my writing) who have even heard of Zhang Ke Jia?  Surely in deeper cinematic circles, people respect and are struck by the vision that he offers.

The fact is that Zhang Ke Jia is perhaps one of the most interesting Chinese filmmakers in more than a decade, perhaps in some ways, potentially ever.  His films deal with China, the enormous, deeply historical country, that is coming to shape the future of the world.  It’s his country, it’s not an outside perspective.  But also it is a perspective that tries to understand the drastic change that is happening, the monumental against the tiny individual.   The human individual’s story against the backdrop of the massive change, the most massive country, the most massive changes, culturally and functionally, but also physically.  The dramas that play out in his films seem like poetic documents from a time of fantastic transition and significantly historical change.

24 City is a weird film in many ways, some strange mixture of straight documentary mixed with interpretive narrative fiction meant to portray the same tonality and stories.  Actually, it might be a sort of fascinating document fighting the concept of documentary against Neo-Realism.  And it’s interesting that he should choose such a dramatic change to experiment with his filmmaking.

A factory, which was created in the 1950’s to build arms for war, which drew people from a village to a new place, drew them from their families in a battle for greater good, in which individual lives gave way to the greater machinations of the country.  But now, this factory is changing again.  Only existing a generation or so, it could so easily be a historical oddity, but people’s lives happened within its rules, within its walls.  And this change is a change that reflects the change of this massive nation.

Zhang Ke Jia’s film may not be as powerful and moving as I’d hoped it would be, but I have to say, given his other work and his general approach to his work, it will likely be a strange, complicated document of change, of this humanism contrasted against the most massive world event changes a nation has to attempt to maneouver.  It’s crazy, hard to fully fathom, to understand, much less in a world in which these things have far from finished from playing themselves out.

A document from the depths of a history that is still working its changes and events upon the world, the smaller voices, the lives of people who work, live, and support this, but from a place in which these changes cannot yet be understood.  For those of us so far outside of this world, it’s a fascinating chance to understand elements of a country that is our neighbor and brother, who may come to appear and change our histories.  We can glimpse, try to understand what there is to be understood.

And beyond that, this strange and challenging work about documentation and the oppositional fictions created that are meant to enlighten those issues.  I don’t know what to do with that stuff.  Documentary vs. realistic fiction.  When no lines are drawn.  Strange and extremely thought-provoking.

The World

The World (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 07/14/08

I’ve been developing an appreciation for director Zhang Ke Jia’s films this year, starting with Unknown Pleasures (2002) and more recently with Still Life (2006), but it wasn’t until I saw this film, The World, that I think I have fully crystalized my appreciation of his work.

Zhang Ke Jia is considered part of China’s Sixth Generation filmmakers, noted for a somewhat neo-realist feel or cinéma vérité, using many non-actors, shooting on digital, and shooting with long takes.  I can’t fully say since I haven’t seen the films of the other directors, though all of those characteristics can be applied to Zhang’s films.

The World, as I understand it, was his only big budget production, shot on location in Beijing’s The World amusement park, a park that promises that you can see all the world without leaving Beijing.  And it features a 1/3-size replica of the Eiffel Tower, areas with Manhattan, the Giza pyramids, Big Ben, and lots of others.  And the story, a somewhat meandering semi-melodrama about two park workers, who are in a relationship, is set amidst and in contrast to this world within the world, this world of replicas, of Capitalism, of pretense and show.

While Zhang employs a lot of non-actors, sometimes more obviously, in his films, all three of his films have also starred Zhao Tao, his female protagonist in each film, here the costume-changing performer, who moves from culture to culture in the shows and roles she plays in the park throughout the film.  Her boyfriend, who moved up with her from the villages, begins the film as a security guard, but shifts into the black market underground evolving into something different.

Much of the contrasts and representations are easy to see: many scenes, both significant and more extraneous, play out against the backgrounds of these iconic grand cultural wonders.  The characters are small against them, even the shrunken versions of the world’s treasures.  Many long to travel, many can’t imagine leaving, as their dramas are enacted within this strange and ironic place.

Zhang Ke Jia clearly saw what kind of potential he could evoke from these images, from these narratives.  His critiques on culture and identity in the changing face of China are both broad and subtle.  But what really, really blew my mind was the cinematography and visual compositions.  His handling of the camera is masterful.  Some scenes play out in quite long takes, with the camera purposefully moving around the scene in a quiet, yet omniscient fashion, but always caputuring the important images, tracking up to the image into some beautiful ways.

This film is much more than the description that I give it here.  It has all this aesthetic and cultural commentary, a compelling narrative with good and meaningful characters, and in a sense, an epic breadth of types.  But this film, which I also think is his most accessible that I have seen, is also just simply a thing of greatness.

Still Life

Still Life (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 05/11/08 at the Roxie Film Center, SF, CA

A few months back, I’d read about Still Life in the New York Times or something and became quite interested in the work of filmmaker Zhang Ke Jia, one of a group of Chinese filmmakers referred to at the “Sixth Generation”.  A month of two ago I rented his earlier film, Unknown Pleasures (2002), which I liked and which continued to resonate for me since watching it.  His films seem like a more naturalistic view inside a part of China (cultural strata and location) much different from anything I’d seen before.  His characters are isolated amidst great change, culturally and physically, within the world’s largest country, the world of the small individual situated within the enormous world of dramatic change.  Isolation and a sense of loss pervade his films.

The other truly fascinating thing about Still Life is the settings and the location of the film.  The backdrop is the ancient cities and villages among the Three Gorges that are being evacuated and demolished as they are to be flooded in the process of damming the Yangtze River in the massive Three Gorges Dam project.  Perhaps one of the most enormous projects of its kind from an industrial, physical human change to the landscape, ecological, and human in the displacement of millions of people, this is truly the “massive” background against which Zhang Ke Jia’s characters are centered.

I first drew interest to this change, though it has been going on for years, when I saw Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes (2006).  Burtynsky’s work focuses on the human hand in reshaping the world, landscapes that are oppositional often to the natural, oppositional to an extreme.  In that film, Burtynsky and Baichwal had great difficulty in getting access to photograph or film in the project as the Chinese government is very protective of the project from getting bad publicity or bad analysis in the world’s eye.  It’s what makes Zhang Ke Jia’s film so fascinating.   The landscapes, the soon to be submerged city in which people are still living and working, is a sight to see.

The story follows Han Sanming, a man from another village, who comes to find his long lost wife of 16 years in a town already underwater.  He takes up a job with a sledgehammer, felling the buildings that will soon be below water.  Even the building in which he takes up residence eventually is marked for destruction.  The world is the center of destruction, living on the fringe of a world that will soon be swallowed up by “progress”.  Some of these villages and towns are over 2000 years old, and the culture of the people is beautifully captured by Zhang Ke Jia’s camera.

While his films rely on a form of neo-realism, focusing on a strata of culture that is perhaps not the lowest on the ladder, but near bottom, he uses non-actors to gain a style of performance that gives the film a tone unlike other films.  One, especially myself, who has never been to China, nor these specific locations, can only speculate to the accuracty of these depictions, to their naturalism.  But at face value, that is how I read it.  Neo-realistic depiction, whose power, when handled well, speaks of a truth and a naturalism, one of belief.

But interestingly, Zhang Ke Jia uses some CGI for a couple of moments of fantasy: a UFO siting, a structure that blasts off like a rocket, a man tight-rope walking between to towers.  These flights of fantasy, I think, are meant to reflect the characters’ mentality to an extent.  The outre-ness of their world, perhaps of hope, and escape.  But they seem to detract from the film’s naturalism distinctly.  I don’t know if he’s used such techniques in other films, but it did sort of disconcert me to an extent.  I still don’t know exactly what to make of them, but they add to the question of belief in the naturalism of the film.

Other shots and sequences are striking.  As Sanming passes these derelict buildings, he turns to see an entire wall felled.  This seems like a beautifully timed shot.  But later when an entire structure is detonated in the backgroud, I wondered whether or not that was also CGI.  Some of his lingering shots of people sitting together are the most striking and beautiful, but his contrasts of these individuals against the massiveness of the river, of the bridges, of the gorges themselves, the iconic quality of this whole thing is still very powerful.

I am eager to see more of his films.

Unknown Pleasures

Unknown Pleasures (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 03/08/08

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.