Jia Zhangke’s new documentary, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, opened in New York on May 28. Set in Shanxi, the prolific Chinese filmmaker’s home province, viewers can expect incisive commentary about the politics of everyday life in contemporary China. For the uninitiated, Jia is arguably cinema’s most important chronicler of China’s transition from revolutionary socialism to the free market reforms of the post-Mao era. His signature blend of slice-of-life portraiture, documentary realism, and understated surrealism offers a salve to cinemagoers made weary by the revanchist Cold War nationalism taking hold over the US press and ruling class. In anticipation of his new film, three of Jia’s narrative features warrant revisiting for their remarkable ability to transform sites of globalization into humanistic meditations on alienation and exploitation.
Unknown Pleasures (2002), Jia’s third feature and his last to be released without the approval of state censors, tells the complex and detailed story of Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) through a surprisingly sparse plot. Bin Bin is a rudderless youth whose meager existence belies the prosperity promised by China’s newly globalized economy. In one scene, Bin Bin watches cartoons with his girlfriend, Yuan Yuan (Zhou Qing Feng), in a rented room. Her mother scolded her, she tells him, for watching the televised World Trade Organization meeting instead of studying for entrance exams. “The WTO, who cares?” says Bin Bin. “Just another money thing.” The camera slowly pans to the television, where an animated character called the Monkey King dances. According to Bin Bin, the Monkey King is lucky: “No parents on his back, he’s free as the wind. He doesn’t give a shit about the WTO.” Neither does Bin Bin.
In their many layers, Jia’s films illustrate what the Chinese critic Wang Hui calls “depoliticization,” a process under which a nation’s economic and political spheres gradually separate until they come to be seen as completely and “naturally” distinct. In China, Wang Hui contends that “notions such as modernization, globalization, and growth can be seen as key concepts of a depoliticized or anti-political political ideology.” Anti-political ideology, according to Wang, is a deliberate attempt to undermine a widespread reckoning with “the social and economic shifts at stake in marketization.” Depoliticization forbids contamination of the economic with the political. It erodes organized labor and treats any overlap of the two spheres as a violation of a natural and commonsense order. Under depoliticization, there is no political solution to economic problems.
With Bin Bin’s dispassionate rebuke of the WTO, Jia makes an important observation: incapable of articulating a politics that connects his experience to China’s emergence on the international economic stage, Bin Bin instead retreats into a fantasy world. When he receives a hepatitis diagnosis in a later scene, the trajectory of his life seems to close for good. Staring into a dusty and abandoned meal hall, he announces: “There’s no fucking future.” This declaration captures a shapeless, dogged pain that permeates China’s path toward marketization.
Bin Bin’s declaration also characterizes the historical horizons of a world held by the gravitational pull of two great powers in a race to the bottom. In the opening act of Ash Is Purest White (2018), Jia’s most recent narrative feature, an aging coal miner (Feng Xiaogang) commandeers a PA system to air his grievances with the mine’s owner. “We’re workers, the revolutionary class,” he announces. “What gives you the right to steal state assets?” But the depoliticized political order renders his attempt to organize fellow workers tragic, even absurd: “Comrades of Hong’an Mine! The future of the mine is at stake! We must act before it’s too late! We must challenge these paper tigers … Let us fight these capitalists to the end!” His appeals to Maoist language have no effect. The workers are no longer organized along the radical lines that made the revolution possible.
The coal miner’s daughter—played by Zhao Tao, Jia’s immensely talented partner and close collaborator—overhears her father’s embarrassing pleas from the street. She finds him drunk and hunched over a microphone. The entire unit, another coal miner explains to her, was laid off after the price of coal dropped. He speculates they may be sent to another province to drill for oil. The workers’ revolutionary inheritance is nullified; the state that once trumpeted militant proletarian slogans now answers to the market.
For casual American observers, Jia’s cinema represents something of a paradox. Despite the approval of state censors, his films are anti-propaganda. They tell stories about the landless and the dispossessed, migrant workers and the sex trade, party abuses and corruption, and they do so flagrantly, considering the state’s tight control of film distribution. Above all, his films show how the political rage channeled by the revolution has been sublimated into senseless cruelty. None of these subjects casts the Chinese state in a particularly favorable light.
It’s clear Jia is not interested in beating the drum of nationalism or otherwise engaging in the foreign policy tit-for-tat currently in vogue. Instead, his interest lies chiefly in the human dimension of China’s new political economy. His films capture lucid scenes of the Chinese working class toiling against the backdrop of an unprecedented financial boom. As the state pursues liberal market reforms and engages more closely with its global counterparts, particularly the US, the stochastic vibrations set off by the fading American hegemony can be felt deeply in the stories of Jia’s motherland.
A Touch of Sin (2013) presents a quartet of vignettes forming a tapestry of capitalist violence. The film’s final arc follows Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a young and social but misfit worker in a garment factory. His story begins when he strikes up conversation with another young worker on the factory line. Distracted, the other boy mangles his hand in a piece of heavy machinery. When Xiao Hui learns he’ll be responsible for covering his coworker’s wages, he splits, finding work at a hotel that furnishes sex workers for travelers from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Young escorts march to a military anthem and wear risqué Red Guard regalia to the delight of a cartoonishly wealthy clientele. When Xiao Hui falls in love with one of the women at the hotel, she rejects his advances, assuring him, “There’s no true love in sex work.” Xiao Hui leaves again, finding work at an electronics factory and living in a company dormitory emblazoned with the words “Oasis of Prosperity.” At the end of the vignette, Xiao Hui throws himself off the dormitory balcony.
Cribbed in part from the real-life suicides of Foxconn workers in company facilities, Xiao Hui’s plunge is a brutal reminder of the human toll paid by laborers at the end of the global supply chain. China, once a standard-bearer for international anti-imperialism, managed to convert demand for cheap clothing, cheap hardware, and cheap money into a formidable power advantage on the world stage. It came at the cost of its socialist tradition, fraught as that tradition may be. The resultant upending of the American-led global hierarchy has reignited the Cold War and spells a crisis whose proportions few can anticipate.
As the US slides toward “domination without hegemony,” in the words of Italian theorist Giovanni Arrighi, we can expect the American empire to resist ever more forcefully its new reality. But where does socialism go from here? Wang Hui calls for a reckoning with the forces of globalization that facilitate anti-political currents in finance, manufacturing, and consumption, thereby pitting workers of different nationalities against each other. He argues that a collective response to the forces of immiseration in the 21st century should reject nationalism and instead combat globalization through a new politics of “critical internationalism.” As a document of solidarity with a working class that is often disparaged or overlooked, Jia’s oeuvre is as good a place as any to start this difficult work. Without it, there may well be no fucking future.