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Jia Zhangke
Jia Zhangke, is arguably the most prominent figure of contemporary Chinese cinema and is regarded as the leader of China’s "Sixth Generation of Filmmakers", who make independent features outside the Chinese state system. He began his career as an "underground" film-maker — directing movies that were praised abroad but never saw official release in China. Now he has a more amicable relationship with the government. He won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival in 2006 — apparently earning the approval of then China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping. At 40 Jia became the youngest recipient of the Leopard of Honor for life achievement at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival. Organizers called him “one of the major revelations of the last two decades and one the greatest filmmakers working today.”

Jia is famed for such films as “A Touch of Sin”, which won best screenplay at Cannes in 2013, “Still Life”, which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2006, and “Ash Is Purest White”. According to the Wall Street Journal, his early works, including the underground hit “The Pickpocket” or “Xiao Wu,” focus on portraying the lives of people excluded from China’s economic boom. For many viewers outside the country, Mr. Jia’s movies are one of the most direct methods of understanding contemporary China.

Jia Zhangke was described by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times as “among the most strikingly gifted filmmakers working today." His work was the subject of the first retrospective of a Chinese film maker at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Upon seeing one of his early films, Martin Scorsese said he experienced a “visceral experience” and called the film “just so moving, so moving and so rigorously made." He told The New Yorker: “The real test of a film is when I look at it — and not knowing where it comes from, or anything about it — suddenly you want to see movies again I think that is really what happened” with Zhangke’s film. [Source: Evan Osnos, the New Yorker, May 9, 2009]

Websites: Chinese Film Classics chinesefilmclassics.org ; Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com; 100 Films to Understand China radiichina.com. dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema dgeneratefilms.com; Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on Chinese Film imdb.com ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site chinesecinemas.org ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List mclc.osu.edu ; Love Asia Film loveasianfilm.com; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) china.org.cn ; Directory of Interent Sources newton.uor.edu ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com

Jia Zhangke's Life

Jia Zhangke, born in 1970, at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution but says his life was shaped more by the Deng Xiaoping reform era that came after the Mao era. He told the New York Times: A. It has to do with my own study of history. I was born in 1970, and in 1979, when China began opening up, I was 9. So my entire childhood and adolescence coincided with China’s reform and opening. So for a long time, I had this idea that China’s transformation began in 1979.

Until he was 21, Jia lived in Fenyang in Shanxi Province, which served as the setting for many of his early films but he said was so boring he used to go the bus station to watch fights for entertainment. According to the New York Times: Jia grew up in an austere household there, where his father was a schoolteacher and his mother was a shop assistant. He once told The New Yorker that his favorite childhood movie was “Breakin’,” a 1984 American film about break dancing; he even taught himself some of the moves and performed with a traveling song-and-dance troupe. [Source: Ed Wong, New York Times, September 13, 2013]

Jia entered the Beijing Film Academy in 1993. He said he was inspired to make films by Chen Kaige’s “Yellow Earth”. He was rejected at Beijing Film school twice before he finally got in the theory program, and spent his free time there working as a ghost writer from television, once writing a 20-part drama and not getting paid for it. His biggest influences were the Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the Taiwanese master known for his long takes and wide-angel shots, and Robert Bresson, who Jia said “took plot, photography and performance and one-by-one...negated them, leaving only the purity of the film.” Jia became associated with “the sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers, which eschewed the lush cinematography and historical subjects of the fifth generation, which included Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, and instead sought raw, straight-up depictions of contemporary China as it underwent profound changes at lightning speed. His first features mined were set in his hometown of Fengyang and were described by the New York Times as "gritty, intimate portraits — a pickpocket in “Xiao Wu,” a musical performance troupe in “Platform,” young lovers in “Unknown Pleasures”"

Jia lives in Beijing with his wife Zhao Tao, an actress who has appeared in several of his films. He regards Beijing as a place to work and make films while Shanxi remains his “true China.” Sometimes he becomes so engrossed in his films he rarely goes home, instead preferring to spend his time, and even sleeping in the studio where he works. He keeps his distance from the Chinese government and relies on money he makes from commercials and funding from private investors in China, Hong Kong, Japan and Europe to make his films. Shelly Kraicer of dGenerate Films, “Jia has long been burdened by that age-old dilemma of what it means to be an artist of humble beginnings whose admiring audience is now primarily based among the Western élite.” Jia also had displays of his art at the China Power Station art gallery in London.

Jia's films feature long scenes and lush cinematography. Evan Osnos wrote in the New Yorker, Jia’s “films are so subdued, nonviolent and virtually sexless, filled with long shots, long takes and restrained dialogue — that when the actress Zhao Tao — the lead in many of his films — showed her family a film she was in made by Jia “her parents fell asleep.” Ken Kwan Ming Hao of China Beat wrote: “Jia is different from all other well-known mainland Chinese directors, be they of the 5th or 6th generation — his is a singular sensibility that is aware of but not chained to the social-political, which to him are meaningful only to the extent that they are constraints to be transcended and transformed. In an environment of habitual politicization and cognitive rigidity, the sensibility espoused in Jia’s films is liberating.” [Source: Ken Kwan Ming Hao, China Beat, October 20, 2010]

Jia Zhangke on the Purpose of Making Films

Jia Zhangke told the New York Times: “A. When I make a film, I have things I want to say. I think the way films in China reflect current reality is too slow. In writing, artists and not just journalists should record life. Contemporary people should film contemporary stories. Contemporary people should write about contemporary events. [Source: Interview with Edward Wong, Sinosphere blog, New York Times, October 18 and 21 2013]

“There are several types of films. There are films with stories that are right in front of you, and you film them. And there is a type that is very removed from the subject. For example, if we were to make a movie about 1949, we would be very removed from it. It’s also a good kind of movie. But what China lacks today is films about 1949 made in 1949, films made about the Cultural Revolution made during the Cultural Revolution, and films about June 4 [the suppression of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989] made during June 4. There needs to be an immediate reflection on the moment. This is what’s missing.

On accusations that his films are too dark and negative, he said: “From my first film “Xiao Wu” to now, I’ve heard criticism . In the past, I might have responded to it, but now I don’t really respond because it’s very obvious. From my perspective, what I am most interested in is individual destinies, and within individual destinies what I’m most interested in is individual struggles. I think this is a general interest that has existed among artists since the beginning of art and movies. We will always be concerned with these struggles, we will always look at the weaknesses, we will always feel a great impulse to understand these dark situations. This is something that doesn’t need to be explained. Through our portrayal of dark situations, through our description of unfortunate events, what we get is a sort of life experience and an affirmation of life. I remember there was an artist who said that on reading Lu Xun’s short stories, he realized that Lu Xun’s short stories are all very dark, but they are like a match that illuminates us. This is art. Otherwise, what do we film? There is no shortage of these kinds of films.

Jia Zhangke’s Films

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Jia Zhang Ke made “Platform” (2000), a 194-minute film about the changes in the 1980s as viewed from a dusty town in Shaanxi Province; and “Unknown Pleasure” (2002) a movie about the impact of globalism on ordinary Chinese as seen from the perspective of two unemployed 19-year-olds in the depressing industrial city of Datong. “The World” was his first film to be distributed to mainland theaters.

Jia’s acclaimed early films — “Platform, The World” and “Still Life” “provide a wonderful tension between the biographical and the historical. “Useless” and “24 City” are regarded as detours. Jia’s best films are insistently about the articulation of ‘space’ amid seemingly insurmountable constraints. In these films, Jia strives to engender a state of serene dynamism in which the sublime is possible. The space that Jia aims for is interior, although the exterior is also incorporated in the articulation, reflecting a central element of Chinese aesthetics.

The overwhelming politics in “Platform” , the naked material greed in “The World” , and the blatant hubris in “Still Life” are not simply scorned and despised; instead they are “dissipated” in the expanse of unencumbered imaginative flights. The flowing rhythm of the scene in The “World” in which the lady boss and the main male character contemporaneously step into a little slow dancing; the compact tension of the scene in “Platform” in which the protagonist unhesitatingly closes the door of the beat-up taxi van taking away his girlfriend for good; and the elegant fluidity of the scene in “Still Life” in which a teenage girl dreamily roller skates on a rooftop with the Yangtze River in the background are just a few examples of transcendence and transformation in Jia’s films.

On Chinese filmmakers who he followed, Jia said: From Taiwan, I follow Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang’s work. From Hong Kong, Johnnie To and Wong Kar-wai. From the mainland, Lou Ye, Wang Xiaoshuai — basically these are the directors who are the same age as I am.” On the the mainland: A. Han Jie or Hao Jie and Wang Being. On how foreigners react to his films he said: The most interesting reaction was that the audience would applaud when people got killed. But when the horse was being beaten or being yelled at, people would feel the pain. A lot of people couldn’t stand watching the horse getting beaten or yelled at, but could tolerate the killing of people. [Source: Interview with Edward Wong, Sinosphere blog, New York Times, October 18 and 21 2013]

Jia Zhangke’s Film Making Process

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Jia’s office is in a gray apartment block in northwest Beijing, and it is here that he writes scripts, talks to producers and edits his films. Mr. Jia’s awards, including the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival, sit in a cheap trophy case in the main room. The walls of the rooms are decorated with framed posters of Mr. Jia’s films from various countries. The most striking is a French one for “Platform” that, in its original form, showed Mao Zedong’s face upside down. Mr. Jia has reversed it so that Mao is right-side up and has hung it in a back room above the computer and monitors he uses for editing. [Source: Interview with Edward Wong, Sinosphere blog, New York Times, October 18 and 21 2013]

“Dressed in a black T-shirt, Mr. Jia served us tea as we waited for everyone to gather. There was some small talk about his home province of Shanxi, a dusty coal region in northern China. On making “A Touch of Sin,: Jia said: I edited “A Touch of Sin” in Datong. Because work was too chaotic here, I went to Datong and I stayed in a hotel. For seven or eight days I didn’t go downstairs, I just kept to myself. To eat I would go down to the second floor and then I would go back up and continue editing. I edit my films myself. I also write the films myself. I handwrote this one. It’s faster than using a computer. I edited all my films except “24 City.” That one I wrote with Zhai Yongming. This time writing by hand was faster than writing with a computer. This time I really wanted to write it by hand, and I also wrote it really fast. And I have this colleague from school — no matter how messy my handwriting was, he could read it and then would type it out. This handwritten screenplay will be published in China, maybe in one or two years, by a publishing house in Shandong.

Jia’s is involved behind the scene in films produced through his company Xstream Pictures These include Han Jie’s debut “Walking on the Wild Side”, which follows a set of young drifters from Shanxi, capturing the grainy, unbeautiful hues that dominated Jia’s own chronicles of one of China’s poorest regions. Shelly Kraicer of dGenerate Films wrote: “But Han’s Jia-like investment in restless, dejected youth is taken to brutal extremes, and all the passionless sex and violence is never anchored in any real curiosity about the film’s characters.”

Jia Zhangke’s Early Films

Jia’s first film, “Xiao Shan Going Home”, which he made while still at film school, is about a cook trying to reach his home in Henan Province for New Year. He cast a fellow student who his professor said was the worst actor in his class. The film was largely dismissed by his class mates but nevertheless Jia was urged to enter it in the Hong Kong Short Film and Video Awards, where it won first prize. 20111127-IMDB Jia Zangke 2.jpg

“Pickpocket" (“Xao Wu”, 1997) was Jia Zhangke’s first major film and second film overall. Inspired by an acclaimed Bresson film, it is an engaging account of petty crime in the director’s home city, Fenyang in Shanxi province told against the backdrop of a crack down on crime that accompanied the Deng Xiaoping “Reform and Opening Up” period. The film follows a small time thief, similar to childhood friend of Jia who became a petty thief. The film was initially dismissed by the film community but embraced by intellectuals for its honesty. It won awards in Berlin, Pusan, Vancouver, and San Francisco. It was so disliked by Chinese authorities they banned Jia from making films. Michael Berry, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA, called the film “a masterpiece...A powerful and probing exploration of China in transition through the lens of a small town pickpocket. Jia masterfully mirrors the collapse of Xiao Wu’s personal relationship with the environment around him, which is, quite literally, being torn down before his eyes.” Xueting Christine Ni said the film “highlights the moral dilemmas within China’s migration and class problems.” [Source: RADII]

Jia’s third film “Platform” is about a village-to-village, song-and-dance troupe during the period between the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square, made on the sly while Jia was banned from working. It stars Zhao Tao, a tough dance instructor from a steel-making family who caught Jia’s eye during a visit to her school. She has been in five of his films but initially was so suspicious of Jia’s intentions she showed up for shooting with a stun gun. The rough footage of “Platform” was smuggled to Hong Kong for editing. The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival and won a half dozen awards. Film Comment critic Kent Jones compared it to a work by Godard in the 60s or Altman in the 70s.

Jia made then made “In Public”, a short documentary shot in a train station and a dance hall; and “Unknown Pleasures”, about restless youths in a decaying industrial town but became so distraught that his films were largely unseen in China that he quit film making for a while and hung out with old friends in Shanxi. The painter Liu Xiaodong, is the subject of Jia Zhangke’s documentary “Dong” . Liu’s 2010 work “Getting Out of Beichuan,” according to Harvard’s Eugene Wang “marks a new stage and possibly a new turning point in the contemporary Chinese art scene.”

In 2003 a ban on Jia's film work was lifted and he made the “The World”, a film with a relatively high budget for him of $1 million about the real-life theme park with miniature version of famous landmarks. “The World” (2004) is about listless love affair pursued through text messages in a Beijing theme park filled with replicas of famous buildings like the Taj Mahal, World Trade Center and St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Still Life and 24 City

Jia Zhang-ke won the Golden Lion — the top prize — at the Venice International Film Festival in 2006 for “Still Life”, a low-budget film that examines the human and environmental costs of China’s rapid growth in the context of the social and physical upheaval caused by the Three Gorges Dam. The film was shot in the village of Fenje which has since been submerged by water backed up by the dam. “Still Life” is about a man searching for his wife in a city to be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. Jia made it after he made a documentary called “Dong” about the artist Liu Xiaodong who painted scenes of local workers at the Three Gorges dam.

"Platform" (2000), "Unknown Pleasures", (2002) and Still Life (2006) are sometimes called Jia’s Hometown Trilogy. Jia wrote the script for “Still Life” in three days while holed up in a hotel and cast his cousin — a real life coal miner who returned to his job after he made the film — as a coal miner searching for his estranged wife. The film combined rugged realism with surreal shots of buildings taking off like rockets and U.F.O. appearing from the sky. Again the film did dismally in China and Jia vented some his frustration a filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who Jia said was turning his back in relevant subject to make blockbusters that pleased the government.

Jia’s 2009 film “24 City” is blend of documentary and fiction that uses both real and acted interviews to tell the story of a factory that employed 30,000 workers that was closed down to make way for luxurious building complex in the city of Chengdu. The reaction to film shows the purgatory that Jia has come to inhabit: the film did better at the Chinese box office than his other films but was still largely ignored and some intellectuals did not like the work because it wasn’t political enough and it used actors in a documentary format.

I Wish I Knew

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In 2010, his documentary “I Wish I Knew”, an oral history of Shanghai, premiered at Cannes and at Expo 2010 in Shanghai and was screened at mainland theaters. Jia told AFP,”The movie touches on sensitive issues. One we deal with these events that influenced Chinese people’s memories, and we can form a common sense of Chinese society.” Jia said he viewed the film as a chance to reach a wider mainland audience. “When Expo is over, at least 200,000 people will have seen the film. This is a very good opportunity,]

Jia Zhangke’s eloquent Shanghai elegy recreates the hustle, the drama, and the music of that iconic Eastern city’s glorious history. The film is a hybrid of documentary and fictional elements that examines the recent transformation of Shanghai with a nostalgic eye for that city’s past. Interviews and cityscapes bring cosmopolitan ghosts to vivid life.

Shelly Kraicer wrote in the Chinese Cinema Digest: “Jia interviews a series of present and former Shanghaiers about their memories of life in the metropolis during its heydays in the 1930s and 1940s, including the sons and daughters of Jazz Age moguls and gangsters, left and right wing politicians, and contemporary investors and writers. He pays particular attention to actors and filmmakers from Shanghai’s fabled movie industries, including the great actress Shangguan Yunzhu (her son is interviewed) and revered director Fei Mu (his daughter and his star actress Wei Wei appear). The appearance in the film of Taiwanese and Hong Kong figures like director Hou Hsiao-hsien and singer/actress Rebecca Pang illustrate how much of Shanghai’s creative spirit migrated to Taipei and Hong Kong after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Interspersed among the interviews are shots of Shanghai today, that speak tellingly, with a beauty and precision unique to Jia’s camera. The film’s political implications lie under the surface.” [Source: Shelly Kraicer, Chinese Cinema Digest]

A Touch of Sin

"A Touch of Sin"(2013) is the seventh feature film made by Jia, who won the best screenplay award for the film at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Blocked from release in mainland China, the fiction film follows the lives of four different people in four different Chinese provinces and powerfully weaves their lives together in a way that connects to true stories of three murders and a suicide in different places across China.. Commenting on the violence, economic struggles and dissatisfaction of everyday life through the eyes of ordinary Chinese, "A Touch of Sin" stars Jia’s muse (and wife) Zhao Tao, Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Zhang Jia-yi, Vivien Li, and Luo Lanshan.

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “In one of the central scenes in Jia Zhangke’s new film, a young man working in the southern Chinese manufacturing city of Dongguan goes to an ATM and finds that he’s broke. He’s just spent the past month betraying his friends and hopping from job to job, including one as a tuxedoed servant in a brothel where he watched the woman he loves perform for clients. Standing in a daze in front of the bank, he gets a call from his mother, who harasses him for money and then berates him for having none. We see the man’s lips quiver and tears well up as he realizes that he has no one he can trust or love, no family, and no friends. A few hours later, he jumps out of the window of the huge housing block for migrant workers where he has been staying, and falls to his death. “Not all of the film is equally successful. Part of the problem is the characters’ continual — and often very quick — recourse to violence, a pathology that Jia seems to be using to draw broader conclusions about where Chinese society is headed. Still it is "one of the few films out of China in recent years with ambition—and made by someone with enough talent to pull it off. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, October 25, 2013]

The New York Times’s A.O. Scott also tipped Jia for Best Director and “A Touch of Sin” for Best Film at the Academy Awards but the film wasn’t even nominated for best foreign film. In one story an angry miner revolts against the corruption of his village leaders. In another, a migrant worker at home for the New Year discovers the infinite possibilities a firearm can offer. In the the third, a pretty receptionist at a sauna is pushed to the limit when a rich client assaults her. And finally, a young factory worker goes from job to job trying to improve his lot in life without much success. Jia says the film's English title pays tribute to "A Touch of Zen," a 1971 martial arts film by Taiwan's King Hu.“That movie is a classic in a genre known as wuxia, where the central character has no resort other than violence to defend himself, he said.

According to Indiewire: “Living in the cracks are the country's anonymous army of migrant workers. Uprooted, alienated and exploited, they struggle to repair damaged relationships with their distant families, or save up for the pilgrimage home at the Lunar New Year. In one shocking scene, the sauna receptionist is battered around the head by a club of banknotes wielded by her assailant who screams: "I will kill you with my money!" In another, Hong Kong businessmen are bizarrely entertained by teen prostitutes dressed in sexed-up Communist uniforms, who march around in thigh-high boots as they chant a proletarian anthem. All four narratives are inspired by tales that happened in real life, and make reference to events — including a high-speed train crash and suicides in foreign-owned factories — that have darkened China's reputation around the world.

Making “A Touch of Sin”

20111127-IMDB Jia Zangke i wish i knew.jpg Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, Jia started working on a “Touch of Sin” after he “discovered the world of Twitter-like microblogs, which many Chinese have been reading in recent years to get the unvarnished daily news and opinions that are all but absent from the state-run news media. He was bombarded with news from all corners of China, much of it tied to the crimes of corrupt officials or businesspeople: rape, land seizures, industrial pollution. In many of those cases, he said, frustrated ordinary Chinese had been provoked to commit acts of bloodshed. said in his office in northwest Beijing. “There are many tragedies or societal problems in which people in the end rebel, resulting in a very big tragedy. So I began to pay more and more attention to this problem, because, frankly speaking, I feel like Chinese people do not really understand the problem of violence because society has never had a widespread discussion of the problem.” [Source: Ed Wong, New York Times, September 13, 2013]

“Unlikely as it sounds, one thing that carried over from Mr. Jia’s original idea for a dynastic movie was the form of the traditional martial arts film, known as wuxia. “I thought these four stories were completely like the martial arts films from the past, with the only exception being that they occurred in contemporary China,” Mr. Jia said. “So I thought I could use the traditional martial arts style to film the movie I wanted to make about today’s China.” The protagonists all try, in various bloody ways, to take control of their fate. One of the most striking images is that of a massage parlor worker played by Zhao Tao, Mr. Jia’s wife and longtime collaborator, walking down a hallway with her white shirt soaked in blood and holding a knife in front of her. Minutes earlier, an abusive customer had tried to rape her, only to meet a grisly end.

“AT $4 million, the budget was the largest of Mr. Jia’s movies, with two-thirds of the financing coming from domestic companies. Mr. Jia began preproduction in August 2012. Then came the grueling production period, from October 2012 to March 2013, with shooting in four locations around the country. Mr. Jia edited the film himself, as he usually does. To do that, he went to the gritty coal-production city of Datong, in Shanxi, and holed up in a hotel room for a week.

Jia said: Production took a very long time. Because starting in August, when we began pre-production, to filming — first we were in Guangdong Province, in Dongguan, for about three weeks. Then we went to Chongqing, and we were there for about another three weeks. Then we went to Shennongjia in Hubei to film the third story. And then we went to Shanxi Province, where we finished filming. We began filming at the end of last October and continued into March, so it was five months in all. You could say this was the most complicated of my films to make. Often when we were chatting, we’d say that it was like filming four separate movies, because these four stories are very different from each other. For each of them, the production and the pre-production had to be completely redone. So really we used the energy for making four movies to finish this one movie."

“After submitting a cut to the state film censorship panel, Mr. Jia waited about three weeks before getting a response. He got two pages of required changes and recommendations, just in time for him to do another edit before Cannes. He said the requests were surprisingly light. The mandatory changes pertained to some snatches of dialogue that censors deemed too coarse, Mr. Jia said. In a list of recommended changes, the censors said the film could do with less violence. Mr. Jia pushed back in a written response, and the censors backed off, he said. “I feel like in a film that is intended to be a reflection on violence, if we don’t see the destructiveness of violence, then I don’t know what I’m trying to say,” Mr. Jia said.

“Why did the censors go so light? Mr. Jia said he suspected it was because the news articles on which the film was based had already made the rounds on microblogs. The narratives had entered the public consciousness in a way that might never have happened 10 or even five years ago, before the Internet became such a social force in China. “These stories are a sort of record that cannot be taken back,” he said. “It’s a record of reality.” In the end the film was blocked in China

Mountains May Depart

“Mountains May Depart” (2015) came home empty handed from Cannes but did gain approval from China’s censors and was allowed to be shown in China. Olivia Geng wrote in the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time: “Compared with “A Touch of Sin,” which weaves together four violent narratives inspired by real-life events, “Mountains May Depart” is much softer. And instead of presenting a series of vignettes, the film follows one family’s development over the course of 26 years. [Source: Olivia Geng, China Real Time, Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2015]

“The story is divided into three parts-1999, 2014 and the near future, 2025. The first describes the main character Tao (played by Jia Zhangke’s wife Zhao Tao), a young teacher who lives in Fenyang, a small town in northern China’s Shanxi province. She gets involved in a love triangle with two men — Liang Zi, a coal miner, and Zhang Jinsheng, a rich gas station and coal mine owner. She eventually chooses the richer man, marries him and gives birth to a son, Dollar.

“In the second part, Tao is divorced from Jinsheng and still lives in the small town in Shanxi while her son lives with his father, who is now a successful businessman in Shanghai. Tao’s father dies suddenly and seven-year-old son Dollar returns for the funeral. Liang Zi, meanwhile, has returned to his hometown because he has cancer. He still makes a living coal mining in another province but can’t afford his medication, so his wife goes to Tao for help. In the final part, set in 2025, Dollar is a college student and is living with his father in Australia. The young man falls in love with his Chinese language teacher, Mia (played by Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang), who is older than his mother.

“Mountains May Depart” got good reviews outside of China but “like Mr. Jia’s previous works, has received mixed reviews in his home country. Some have criticized the story as lacking sophistication, while others have balked at the theme of teacher-student love. “The age gap is 40 years!” wrote one Weibo microblogger. “Hard to understand,” wrote another. On Douban, a Chinese website that allows people to rate films, books and music, some argue that Mr. Jia caters to Western tastes in order to win awards. But others contend the director is simply trying to depict the transformation in Chinese people’s lives amid an ever-changing international economy. “I’m from a small place in Shanxi and didn’t leave there until I was 21 years old,” Mr. Jia said. “The reason I made this film is because life is full of uncertainty and unexpectedness.”

Ash Is Purest White

“Ash Is Purest White” (2018) Ash Is Purest White is set in the coal city of Datong in Shanxi province. According to Wei Xi of the Global Times it "is loosely connected to Jia's previous works — the two major characters have the same names and personalities as two characters from Jia's “Unknown Pleasures” (2002) and the plot is somewhat related to the story in “Still Life” (2006). Additionally, the way the couple's story is portrayed over a long period of time is similar to “Mountains May Depart” (2015). As a result, some Chinese reviewers have been calling the film a compendium of sorts of Jia's works.[Source: Wei Xi, Global Times, August 30, 2018]

“Like most of Jia's films, “Ash is Purest White” focuses on ordinary people who come from different backgrounds, but this time he is also treating them as belonging to the same larger group since he considers them as the "sons and daughters of jianghu," which is also the Chinese title of the film. “A term often used in Chinese martial arts stories, jianghu usually refers to a community of martial artists, in Jia's film however he uses this term in a broader sense. "For me it means, a group of people who leave home and, as they wander about, seek out life's possibilities and search for a new home they can feel emotionally connected to," he noted.

“Jia felt that this concept of jianghu was so central to his film, that he asked the translators who wrote the English subtitles for the film to not translate it but use it directly. "After the film was screened several times abroad, I heard a lot [foreign audience members] saying 'jianghu' 'jianghu,'" Jia told the Global Times, going on to joke that he thinks his film may end up popularizing the Chinese term overseas.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Jia Zhangke’s documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” brings to an end his trilogy about the arts in China with an examination of the written word, with three distinguished Chinese writers — Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong — who have come together to speak at a literature festival to Jia’s hometown of Fenyang in Shanxi Province, the setting for a number of his films including Platform and Mountains May Depart. A fourth writer, the late Ma Feng, is also a significant presence in a film in the form of his personal testimony. It was Jia’s first documentary since 2011’s “I Wish I Knew.”

James Mottram, South China Morning Post“With these writers famed for depicting rural characters and settings, their thoughts and feelings about their lives and work was something Jia felt compelled to capture. “The rural experience is something I think is missing in the main narrative, main discourse, of the society now in China,” he tells the Post, “because we have experienced traumatic urbanisation, and a lot of younger generations have no idea what it was like before in rural villages.” [Source: James Mottram, South China Morning Post, February 25, 2020]

“As the film emerges as a subtle portrait of Chinese history since 1949, it becomes clear why Jia chose authors as his principal subjects. “Writers are people that tend to be very perceptive and that’s why they tend to be the messengers of what’s going on in society in real time. Also, these are very famous, brave writers, who continue to this day to push the boundaries of a lot of social issues and social taboos. They will write about things that people dare not talk about and that’s the main motif of their work.”

“Certainly, that is the case for Jia Pingwa, one of China’s most famous writers, who saw his infamous 1993 novel Ruined City, with its graphic sexual content, banned for 17 years. But director Jia wasn’t looking to stir up controversy with his film. “More importantly for me, these are great storytellers … not only can they use written words to tell a story, but if they’re on camera, they can pass down that type of oral history in a very, very convincing and authentic manner.”

“Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” is an oral history. Jia calls the film “my gift” to younger people in the way that they will be able to draw from the recollections of his interviewees. Certainly, it is a potent exploration of life during the Cultural Revolution. Yu, the author famed for his 1993 novel To Live, recalls the deep frustration of finding censored books, missing their beginnings and ends. “I was haunted by those missing endings,” he says in the film.

“For Jia, a return to the documentary form after a decade in fiction — during which time his reputation in world cinema has grown hugely — was a particular joy. “For fictional films, you tend to have a very strict script that you know how the story is going to go,” he says. “There may be some changes but it’s already there. With documentary films, you have new discoveries in the filmmaking process. A lot of things just happen by chance. They’re not pre-planned. It’s very spontaneous. It’s continuously and constantly evolving.”

“Divided into 18 short chapters, the structure of Jia’s documentary feels initially rather loose, but it gradually reveals itself as chronological. Beginning with Ma, as recalled by his daughter, “You have different generations of writers recounting a history from different eras.” The film takes us, via Jia Pingwa and Yu, to Liang, the youngest of the quartet (she was born in 1973) who has made her name in literary criticism, short stories and fiction.

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Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke Projects

In October 2017, Jia launched a new festival on his home turf in northwestern Shanxi Province: the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival.” The aim of the festival is to showcase independent films. Jia would like it to be China’s version of Sundance, America’s biggest independent film festival. But participants have been careful not to anger the Chinese government to prevent their films from banned and festival organizer have tried to avoid controversy to keep the festival from being canceled. See Separate Article https://factsanddetails.com/china/cat7/sub42/entry-7601.html#chapter-12factsanddetails.com

Explaining on reason he founded the festival, Jia said: “I have been living a double life since the very first film I made when I was 27.On the one hand, I have been telling stories with films that have deep roots in Shanxi and China. Yet, on the other hand, I shuttled through all kinds of international film festivals around the world with my films.” “I constantly wondered during the journey when we’d be able to have a film festival in our own country, in our own hometown, to let people look at our culture and our work and to contribute our reviews and opinions of the world’s films.” [Source: Fergus Ryan, China Film Insider, March 16, 2017]

“Where Has Time Gone?” is the first movie coproduced by the five BRICS countries. It was shown at he ninth BRICS Summit Xiamen, Fujian province, China, in 2017. Jia led the project as the movie's chief producer. Its main participants — from the four BRIC countries other than China — were Alexey Fedorchenko of Russia, Madhur Bhandarkar of India, Walter Moreira Salles Jr. of Brazil and Jahmil X.T. Qubeka of South Africa. "The world has undergone rapid social and economic change, and most people now lead incredibly fast paced lives," Jia said. "Time flies, and it is the theme of time that resonates with the five filmmakers from different countries." The 110-minute movie consists of five stories respectively centering on one BRICS country. All five stories end in an old saying or a famous line about time to connect the following one. [Source: Xu Fan, China Daily, August 31, 2017]

Jia Zhangke and the Chinese Government

Jia is as a delegate to China's National People's Congress. According to the Global Times: “While it may be hard for many people to understand how a filmmaker, especially one who has made a number of films that were not approved for release in the Chinese mainland, could cooperate with the Chinese government on so many projects, Jia feels that it is quite natural for him to do so. "In general my first priority is finding ways to do more for the Chinese film industry," Jia said. "This way, [the authorities and I] can always find things that we both approve of. It is a very natural that we work together." [Source: Wei Xi, Global Times, August 30, 2018]

In June 2011, state media quoted director Jia Zhangke saying that he had abandoned a spy film because of limits on freedom of expression, and censorship had stopped him making a film about a man's sex life. "If I want to make the movie here, I have to portray all the communists as superheroes," Jia said. "This kind of cultural over-cleanliness that bans the erotic, violent and terrifying is cultural naivety." [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian June 16, 2011]

In remarks made as he addressed a cultural forum in Shanghai Jia said, "The only reason that we cannot make genre movies is the barrier that censorship sets." Jia said he scrapped a film about a man's sex life after an official decided it might break anti-pornography laws. He also abandoned a spy film about the Communist party and Kuomintang due to controls. "If I want to make the movie here, I have to portray all the communists as superheroes," Jia said. "This would betray my original idea and make it difficult to develop the story." He added: "This kind of cultural over-cleanliness that bans the erotic, violent and terrifying is cultural naivety."

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, IMDB, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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