Unknown Director, Familiar Pleasures: Jia Zhangkes Past, Present, and Uncertain Future
The mainland Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s third film, Unknown Pleasures, has found an American distributor. This piece of news is, in its way, good news. Jia is arguably the most talented member of the group of directors known as the Sixth Generation. Of course the phrase, “Sixth Generation” represents, in my opinion, much of what is endemically wrong with the market for Chinese films in the West. Such facile designations are just one of many factors likely to stand in the way of young Chinese directors’ ambitions to make good films, of Westerners’ desires to view China through film, and of critical attempts to understand how China might carve out a sustainable position for itself in international cinematic culture.
As the name is generally used, the Sixth Generation refers to, and has bestowed instant mass- auteur status upon, a diverse group of directors who, for the most part, were born after 1960 and started their careers in earnest after 1990. The old guard against which observers have posited the antithetical rise of this newer generation is the so-called Fifth Generation, whose exemplary members (Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, ZhangYimou) broke into the international festival circuit in a blaze of glory in the min-1980s. The Sixth Generation represents a neorealist response to the modernist sensibilities of their forebears, a break conditioned by several factors: the state film studios’ reluctance, after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, to fund potentially subversive and probably unprofitable forays into art film, the reduced urgency of the memories of historical atrocity that colored so many Fifth Generation films, and quite possibly the conviction that the simultaneously mundane and miraculous realities of a rapidly developing China demanded documentation in a new cinematic idiom.
Understood through useful icons, if the Fifth Generation was all about sumptuous photography, crimson bridal sedans, cannibalism, fetishes, flamboyant references to bodily fluids, and Gong Li, the Sixth Generation is about handheld cameras, grimy bus windows, unemployment, too much TV, actual sex, the occasional evocation of tenderness, and actors with bad skin. Words likely to be found in the English copy touting videotapes of the formers include “steamy” and “exotic”; videotapes of the latter might be sold as “gritty,” “honest,” and, increasingly, “cool.” And, most importantly, the Fifth Generation in its early stages was made possible by funding from the Chinese government, while the Sixth Generation kids are independent filmmakers, fully and literally so, scraping together funding from sources in France, Hong Kong, or Japan.
The worst products of both generations are described reasonably well by the explanatory stereotypes above; the best render those same stereotypes absurd and entirely unclever. Jia Zhangke’s firsts two films, Xiao Wu (1997) and Platform (2000), were the immature products of an astounding cinematic talent driven by an urgent humanistic impulse. Neither of these films found a distribution forum in the West outside of the festival circuit (the New York Film Festival has been a prominent supporter of Jia’s work). But Jia’s third feature- length work, Unknown Pleasures, is coming soon to a theater near you. It is not an awful film by any means. It is, however, the weakest of Jia’s films, in terms of both execution and vision, and thus it is a crying shame that this will be the film that introduces China’s most visionary new director to a large Western audience.
The plot of Unknown Pleasures is simple enough. The movie follows a pair of unemployed, unsatisfied young men, Bin Bin and Xiao Ji, longtime buddies libing in a dour industrial town in China’s heartland, as they mire themselves, never inextricably, in romantic and entrepreneurial debacles. Both lives with their parents. Bin Bin is a helpless observer of the implosion of his love affair with a schoolgirl whose heart is set on going to Beijing to study international trade. Xiao Ji falls for Qiao Qiao, the lead dancer in the promotional troupe for Mongolian King liquor; the fact that Qiao Qiao is dating the dangerous gangster who runs Mongolian King makes for some tension that is eventually defused with little fanfare, in a moment worthy of Jia’s best work in its masterful simultaneous evocation of beautiful relief and disappointed bewilderment.
All this sounds exciting enough, but the film was clearly not intended as a plot vehicle. Shot in DV, it strives instead of ambiance- and a kind of ambiance that hovers between realism and expressionism, the revelatory and the message- driven. By his own account, Jia Zhangke was inspired to make the film by the architecture of Datong, a city on the northern Chinese plain that conjures up associations in the Chinese mind that lie somewhere between the impressions Americans have of Cleveland and of Chernobyl. Jia’s finest trademark is perhaps the driven attention he pays to the task of locating his characters in an environment, the vitality of which in no way exceeds or is exceeded by theirs. Just as Jia is interested in society’s losers, he has a real fondness for lost places: the wasted grassland at the edge of a highway, or the cavernous Mao-era recreation center that looks like it was built more to house an aircraft carrier than to accommodate the wimpy trajectories of vulnerable human bodies.
But the viewer adapts to the striking effect of this ambiance quickly enough and then cannot help demanding more from the film’s other aspects than is on offer. There is no clear moment when the film goes wrong; it never gets around to making promises that it then breaks. It’s just that …something fails. Unknown Pleasures feels oppressively slow, but neither does it turn slowness into an exploitable virtue. Minute per minute, there is probably more action and dialogue in this film than in either Xiao Wu or Platform; the latter, an epic digression that spanned two decades and that in its original version clocked in at well over three hours, did not feel so slow. Self-consciously “meaningful: dialogue and stiff acting are definitely part of what keeps the audience of Unknown Pleasures at such an aloof, yawning distance. Jia’s earlier features dwelt in length on the physical personhood of his largely amateur actors and allowed many of them to convey a spontaneous charm; here, everyone seems weighed down by the challenge of working under a nervous new superstar director whose only stable capital as of yet is cultural.
Of course, deadpan acting is probably part of what the movie is trying to achieve. Like Xiao Wu and Platform, Unknown Pleasures is a film about disillusionment, but whereas the two earlier films were about disillusionment as a process, about characters’ journeys from bumbling hope to poker-faced despair, Unknown Pleasures offers us pre- packaged disillusionment, always already present and motivated by causes that must be either self-evident (the ravages of nouveau capitalism, the inherent attractiveness of ennui) or, worse, nonexistent. And this point has something to do with why I think this film is more than a garden-variety disappointment. More intriguing than a failure of aesthetic energy, it seems to represent the mutation of a gripping world view into something far more mundane.
The title character of Xiao Wu is a small-town pickpocket whose capitalist friends are beginning to see him as an embarrassment; he falls in love with a karaoke parlor hostess, is first loved in return and then abandoned by her, and ends up getting arrested. The final scene, from the point of view of the handcuffed Xiao Wu, presents the unsettling specter of a Chinese staring squad, an impersonal interest at the film’s dominant subjectivity, reduced here to the role of a curiosity. It’s a small film, to be sure, but a disarming one, buoyed up nicely by the extraordinary grace of certain scenes, the last scene among them, and by the charisma of the pint- sized, roguish lead actor, Wang Hongwei.
The love story feels genuine and fresh, all the more so because the two leads court and celebrate one another through karaoke. Here, as in all of Jia’s movies, the world is saturated by mass media: loudspeakers, radio plays, television, the news, and karaoke. In Xiao Wu, rather than the more internationally familiar image of individuals rendered passive and fatalistic by the omnipresence of sights and sounds not their own, we see characters appropriating technologized culture for their own purposes. Karaoke, poor-quality recyclings of manipulative popular songs, is a source, however temporary, of emotional liberation for Xiao Wu.
The vision of popular culture in Unknown Pleasures is very different. The latter film seems to be working its way toward an implicit critique of popular and technologized culture, as movies and television appear in tragicomic juxtaposition with the lackluster realities of life. Bin Bin and his frumpy schoolgirl girlfriend regularly rent a room in a local motel, which they use to enjoy cable television in one another’s company. They carry on decisive conversations about the future of their relationship while watching cartoons, not looking at one another. Pop culture here is a substitute for, not a facilitator of, sex and personal connection. Leaving aside the question of which is correct, a more optimistic take on popular culture or this one, it’s fair to say that the latter feels far more preachy, far more tired. We’ve all heard it before.