many filmmakers selected for this year’s New York Film Festival, Jia Zhangke
gets more distribution internationally than in his native country. However, in
Jia’s case, it is not because he is an elitist or lacks a popular following. In
fact, many of his films have been widely seen through bootleg copies. It is
simply a matter of government censorship. Despite his uncertain status with the
official state film establishment, Jia is received like a favorite son when he
revisits his home town and other scenes from his resolutely independent films
in Walter Salles’ documentary, Jia
Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang (clip here), which screens during the 53rd New York Film Festival.
concept behind Guy from Fenyang is
hardly a new one. Damien Ounouri essentially did the same thing in his
hour-long documentary Xiao Jia Going Home
from 2008. However, a lot can change in seven years, especially in today’s
China. Nor is Jia one to be idol for long. Indeed, as Salles’ doc opens, Jia
and actor Wang Hongwei walk through the streets of Fenyang that were lined with
karaoke bars when they made their earlyfilms like Platform, but are ominously shuttered now.
someone who cannot get his films approved for Mainland theatrical distribution,
Jia sure has a lot of people approach him on the streets. Yet, he is always
gracious about it. He also seems like a dutiful son when he visits his mother
and eldest sister. In somewhat oblique fashion, Salles reveals the importance
of family to Jia, especially with respects to his father. As a university
faculty member, who had the profound misfortune of keeping a diary since his
teenage years, the Cultural Revolution was especially difficult on Jia’s dad.
It was also hard on his grandmother, who was the widow of a land-owning doctor.
Clearly, his family’s experiences have influenced his work, most notably Platform, but there is a nonconformist humanist
perspective reflected throughout his work. Of course, that is exactly why he
has such trouble with the censors.
addition to Jia, Salles also talks to several of his key collaborators, notably
including his wife, muse, and frequent leading lady Zhao Tao, who explains how
her life inspired The World. In
accordance with Jia’s democratic spirit, Salles also elicits insights from his
frequent cinematographer Yu Lik-wai and sound designer Zhang Yang. Fittingly,
he liberally illustrates the film with clips of Jia’s work, but none are as
evocative as the visually striking (and perhaps comparatively underrated) The World.
up on Jia’s concerns regarding overdevelopment and callous demolition, Salles
often compares and contrasts the locales of Jia’s film as they were then with
their present radically altered conditions. It is hard to miss the devastation
wrought on working class neighborhoods. Although Jia never gets explicitly political,
we get a clear idea of the social inequities that distress him.
At one point Jia suggests he makes films about
average people living common lives. That is sort of true, but it is nearly
impossible for anyone to be average or common during a period of hyper-reality.
Jia captures that zeitgeist with vivid directness (see A Touch of Sin for a particularly blistering example). Salles provides
the cultural and political context necessary to understand Jia’s significance
in contemporary China, while conveying a sense of his resilient personality.
Recommended beyond Jia’s admirers for anyone interested in independent Chinese
film and culture, Jia Zhangke, a Guy from
Fenyang screens this Wednesday (9/30) at the Beale and Thursday (10/1) at
the Gilman, as part of this year’s NYFF.
Labels: Documentary, Jia Zhangke, NYFF '15, Zhao Tao