Since his first feature film Xiao Wu was released in 1997, Jia Zhang-Ke has crafted a body of work attuned to the sweeping economic shifts his home country of China has experienced over the past 30–40 years. An archeologist of China’s massive transformations, Jia has spent his career unraveling China’s extreme growth and its impact on individuals and communities. His narrative and documentary films blend a unique empathy toward their subjects with a cool, often critical lens aimed at decades of the most unprecedented sustained economic growth in the modern era.
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, the final installment of Jia Zhang-Ke’s documentary trilogy focusing on Chinese artists, premiered at the 70th Berlinale in 2020. At the end of May 2021, it had its virtual release in theaters across the US. The third part of an over-a-decade-long series that began in 2006, the film consists of 18 thematic chapters focusing on the lives and histories of four different Chinese writers. The work’s symphonic structure layers together remembrances from personal and collective histories with glances at China’s current ecology. This past May, before the US release, I got to sit down with Jia and his translator on Zoom to discuss this new film, issues of time, and technology.
Anthony Hawley (Rail): There’s an ease to the way you cover expanses of time in your films. Things get woven together almost seamlessly. The way the characters’ stories intersect in a film like A Touch of Sin (2013) or the way that Mountains May Depart (2015) and Ash Is Purest White (2018) span different times so effortlessly. On the one hand, this new work is very similar to other films of yours in that it spans decades, but the structure is also more partitioned. It’s put together like an experimental novel. I was curious if you could talk about this a bit and why you decided to take this approach.
Jia Zhang-Ke: I have been making films that sit within very long expanses of time, both narrative and documentary films. Using this type of linear chronology and weaving in all the different elements is a way for me to rebel against the contemporary Chinese reality, which is so fragmented as a result of the internet. For me, in order to tell a story that is more holistic, more comprehensive, I need to somehow position either my characters or subject in a long span of time.
With Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, that was the plan in the beginning—to tell the stories in a linear chronological order so that it could be historically comprehensive and holistic rather than fragmented. And that was the plan also for this particular documentary, but it was not until I shot Yu Hua, who is the third character in the film, but the last one we shot, that I started to realize that I didn’t want to structure everything in such a linear chronological way. As he talked about the personal difficulties and issues that he faced, I suddenly realized that the three authors who I shot prior also shared something similar in terms of trials and tribulations and personal difficulty and struggles growing up in rural areas with rural upbringings.
There were collective and personal issues we all experienced. From Ma Feng, the first author, talking about hunger and the freedom to love, issues that were very much informed by that kind of common and collective experience of that time; to Jia Pingwa (the second author) addressing how political issues impacted personal lives; to Yu Hua also talking about how an individual can succeed in a particular environment in a particular historical context; then with Liang Hong (the last author) talking about the issues within her seemingly stable family, the structure, but also the conflicts. These are all things that the audience can relate to. So while this film is uniquely Chinese and the histories that we’re trying to capture are very uniquely Chinese, by distilling these basic human issues it becomes even more universal. I see myself as a kind of architect putting these elements together, following not a chronological logic but an emotional logic.
Rail: Thinking about putting things together architecturally in a way that isn’t as chronological, I wanted to go back to the treatment of time as a way of rebelling against the contemporary Chinese reality, the very disembodied time of the internet. First, do you think that working on this most recent piece will change the way that you approach this strategy? Second, I’m curious how your thinking about chronological time has changed over your career.
Jia: As a filmmaker, I think it’s very important for me to always find a new way of looking at things—new perspectives for observing human beings, human behaviors, and human histories. This film is structured as it is because of the occupation of these four subjects. For me, it is important to somehow evoke an echo of these authors’ work. I want it to capture their literary landscapes. That’s the reason why I use the 18 chapters.
But even beyond this echoing the structure of novels, I see these 18 sections almost like 18 monuments. Each one is inscribed with different painful histories, events, or struggles that we all experience. These become memorialized in such a way that each particular chapter is a monument inscribed by the author sharing their stories. So in a way it’s almost as if these 18 monuments have transcended time and space, and can be accessed by anyone anywhere. Going back to the image of the architect, I think about how I am going to put these all together in such a way that will make sense for this particular film. And I would do the same for feature films.
Rail: That’s interesting because I was thinking about the first film in the trilogy, Dong (2006). Yes, it’s about a painter, but it almost feels like a painting itself—the way it captures stillness and the communities almost as a landscape themselves, especially in that moment of mourning the loss of the laborer.
Jia: For Dong, it’s about the same painter, but it is set in two places: part of it is set in the Three Gorges Dam and the other is set in Bangkok. But these locations share one thing that is very crucial to these two different locations: the rivers. I really see the river as a way to juxtapose these and make them the yin and the yang, or almost like doublets, or components of traditional Chinese painting that comes in pairs: one will compliment the other in such a way that they will create balance in life.
And that is very much the way I thought about structuring that film since it’s about painting and two locations echoing within the Chinese painting tradition.
Rail: Something I was noticing a lot was the technology in this film, the devices. Chapter 10, which focuses on Yu, opens with the writer watching a basketball game between Portland and Denver on his smartphone. In chapter seven on the train, we hear a soundtrack with Andrea Bocelli playing, and over it another layer of sound: texting and notifications on devices. This reminded me of the lighter in your first feature Xiao Wu (1997) that plays Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” I was wondering about the presence of these things, the technology. There are so many more examples in your films.
Jia: I think that it has everything to do with the reality of contemporary China. The reality now is that the technology and the devices we use shape us—as a generation, as a group of people in this particular country. The space of the train over the past 20 to 30 years is the same, but the people riding the train have changed. You can see that easily by looking at the technologies and the devices that are used, be it a cell phone, an online gaming device, or an iPad. So it is very much depicting what is here and now in contemporary China.
In order for me to create connections between the past and the now, I need to rely on these moments. This way we can ask the question, How did we get here? In order for us to somehow give a reason to look back, we need to juxtapose the interviews with those authors recounting and recollecting their past memories and past histories with what is going on right now in contemporary China.
Rail: One of the most striking parts of the film comes in the scene surrounding the line “Father has always been my question,” and subsequently the questions surrounding the white shirt connected to Liang Hong, the final author. That scene has so many layers. There’s the symbol of the father followed by the transmission of that question into the book. Next, there’s the grandson reading that question and asking it to the audience. And, of course, we see the starched white shirt against the broken-down house. Could you talk a little bit about how this scene came to be?
Jia: So we have four authors as the main subjects of this film. They differ in age, and each author represents one particular era or generation that I want to capture. Liang Hong very much represents that “anything happened after the 1990s” generation. She’s also sharing very intimate and private histories with the audience. I think it has something to do with the fact that unlike previous authors here, Liang Hong herself is a nonfiction writer, whereas the previous three are novelists. Perhaps because of that, she tends to be more open and candid with her private memories and family histories. So I had to think about other ways to capture the essence of what she is sharing.
Of course we had to stage that white shirt as it’s blowing in the wind; that’s not the actual shirt of the father. But as a filmmaker, I always try to blur lines between what’s fictional, what’s narrative, and what’s documentary. And that was one way for us to somehow find a subjective symbol to capture the essence of the image that dominated her psyche for so many years. It was a way to tell the stories of those intimate stories she shared.