At 45, Chinese film director Jia Zhang-ke is considered one of the world’s most important filmmakers. His age has ideally positioned him as a witness to China’s historical transition since 1976, the year of Mao Tse-tung’s death, the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the coming to power of Deng Xiaoping, who opened China to the market economy over the course of a few short years. Both because of their aesthetic appeal and the opportunity they offer to peek at China’s little known reality, Jia’s 21 films – short and feature-length, documentary and fiction – are gaining an increasingly global audience.
Brazil’s interest in the filmmaker was underscored by the recent opening of the documentary Jia Zhang-ke, the Man from Fenyang, directed by Walter Salles, and by the work of researcher Cecília Mello, a professor in the Department of Film, Radio and Television at the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP). Written contributions by Salles, Mello, French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon and the filmmaker also himself appear in the book, The World of Jia Zhang-ke, released by the publishing house Cosac Naify simultaneously with the documentary.
Mello completed her research project entitled “Intermediality, aesthetics and politics in the Chinese cinema of Jia Zhang-ke” at the Department of the History of Art at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), Guarulhos campus, in 2015. In addition to overseeing the project and ensuring its continuity, Mello, who in 2014 enrolled at ECA-USP but kept her ties to Unifesp, taught classes, advised students and created a line of research in Chinese cinema. Her interest in Zhang-ke’s work led to her study of cinematic realism. “First, he is a director with a view of the transformations of a country which is an emerging world power attracting global attention but which is still somewhat mysterious and, in many respects, isolated,” says Mello. “Second, I tried to understand his search for a new cinematic language to approach what is new in the real world.”
Zhang-ke’s films portray these transformations by showing characters in transition, often disconnected from their geographical and social origins, pitted against changes that affect their daily lives. His third full-length film, Platform (1997), which takes place in Fenyang, where the director was born, accompanies a group of artists between 1979, when movies celebrating Mao were still being shown, and the late 1980s, at nearly the end of Deng’s reform process. In Search of Life (2006) showcases characters displaced by the construction of the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, which submerged several cities. A Touch of Sin (2013) shares four stories of violence taken from Weibo, the Chinese Twitter.
“We see cities that are being torn down, memories that are being erased, a people in flux as a result of economic forces, and Zhang-ke is interested in understanding the effect of these transformations on the individual,” Mello writes. “In the history of filmmaking, creativity generally peaks at times of historical and social transformation. Globally, the director who brings this idea home in the most powerful and relevant way today is Zhang-ke.”
Film critic Jean-Michel Frodon says that Zhang-ke’s films also challenge the boundaries between fiction and documentary. The director and his contemporaries – the so-called sixth generation of Chinese cinema – have taken a realist turn when compared to previous films in the country’s history of filmmaking. This is evident in his use of actual locations, amateur actors, improvised scenes and natural light in his movies. “From the time of the Chinese Revolution in 1949 until the early 1980s, Chinese cinema was held captive by the official propaganda machine and was very far detached from reality,” says Mello. This trend was upended by the fifth generation of directors, like Zhang Yimou (Red Lanterns) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), who gained fame abroad in the mid-1980s. “Even though they were filmed in actual locations, these movies still felt frozen in time, and they took place almost exclusively in the countryside.”
Using digital technology – which provides much more flexibility than working with film — was key to achieving the realistic approach Zhang-ke adopted, beginning with Unknown Pleasures (2002). For example, he was able to capture in real time the transformations resulting from the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the feature-length movie In Search of Life. While portraying modern aspects of Zhang-ke’s work, Mello also demonstrates the director’s subtle dialogue with Chinese artistic traditions in his films. “It is a way to call attention to the deeper dimensions of these changes. These are not just buildings that have been knocked down; an entire historical tradition has come to an end,” says Mello. “What I admire about
Mello cites one example of the presence of ancient traditions in Zhang-ke’s films that involves the traditional Chinese art of painting landscapes on scrolls, which are horizontally folded as if narrating a story. Lateral movements of the camera and the characters’ alternating points of view evoke this tradition. Another characteristic of scroll painting that shows up in Zhang-ke’s films is the presence of empty space, to be filled in by the imagination of the observer (or viewer).
Mello has also studied the relationship between Zhang-ke’s films and landscape architecture, a form of traditional art in China that interacts directly in the film The World. The plot takes place in a theme park in Peking that has small-scale reproductions of tourist attractions from all over the world. According to Mello, the film is a spatial odyssey conducted in accordance with the organizational principles of Chinese gardens, which are designed to be viewed from above, like mosaics, or when at eye-level, to display movement, like a narrative.
Another student of this feature-length film, Professor Denilson Lopes, a professor at the School of Communications at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (ECO-UFRJ), sees aspects of “transnationalization:” the main protagonists are not the visitors to the theme park but its employees, some of whom are foreigners. “The theme park represents the possibility of a better life, a place for meeting and socializing, where people stroll, work and live,” says Lopes. “In this instance, globalization does not conform to the idea of Americanization or forced homogenization.”
The more Mello understands about the work and life of Jia Zhang-ke, the more certain she is that the director has embraced a responsibility to represent China’s all-encompassing essence in his films, even as the director’s place in the country remains unclear. His first three films were featured at international festivals while they were banned in China. The World was edited, In Search of Life appeared in theaters with limited public acclaim, and A Touch of Sin was prevented from opening. Nonetheless, Jia Zhang-ke is a celebrity thanks to piracy. “Little by little, he has become China’s most famous filmmaker, even in China,” Mello says. Today, you can see his face on whiskey ads in Beijing’s metro.
Researcher Isaac Pipano believes that Zhang-ke gradually won over the Chinese public by refusing to adopt a militant tone in his films. “Bypassing the conventions of a tradition of politicized films that denounce injustice and without directly criticizing the powers that be, Zhang-ke provides commentary on ways of life and the most common daily experiences,” says Pipano, who is working toward his doctorate in film studies at the Federal Fluminense University, and whose master’s thesis in communications, which he defended in 2012 at UFRJ, focused on Zhang-ke’s work as a documentarist.
Mello says that although Zhang-ke is under the close watch of the Chinese government, he does not dodge his role as the country’s most important current portraitist. “Despite the diversity of cultures and languages in China, there was always an official attempt to assert an idea of the country not as a nation but rather as a civilization,” says the researcher. “Zhang-ke never said this directly, but I see in his work a certain desire to speak for all of China. His intention, for example, with A Touch of Sin, was to make a movie that had the makings of a classic and would be remembered in China even 100 years from now.”
Intermediality, aesthetics and politics in the Chinese cinema of Jia Zhang-ke (nº 2011/20692-9 and 2012/08694-9); Grant mechanism Young Investigators Awards in Emerging Centers Program; Principal Investigator Cecília Antakly de Mello (EFLCH-Unifesp); Investment R$ 43,655.49 and R$185,195.40.