Three Films by Jia Zhangke Review
Jia Zhangke is quickly becoming the next big Chinese filmmaker in the West. He has a vast library of films consisting of documentary and fiction, though he has been making films since 1994, it was his debut feature Xiao Wu (1997) that first garnered attention after being selected for the 48th Berlin Film Festival. As an introduction to audiences, Arrow has released a dual format collection of perhaps the most well-known Jia Zhangke films. The three major films in this box set include an emotional epic with elements of science fiction and belonging, a violent crime film and a semi-fictional documentary.
The films: 2008's 24 City, a documentary with fictional elements dealing with an old military hardware factory about to be demolished for a sparkling new apartment complex, and those who worked at the factory; A Touch of Sin (2013), perhaps the film that brought Jia Zhangke to more western mainstream audiences, is a violent crime anthology dealing with real-life events that were suppressed by the Chinese central news media. Finally, 2015's Mountains May Depart which concerns interpersonal relationships and the connection to one’s country. Each entry is remarkably different in tone and genre, which shows the extent of Zhangke’s cine-literacy and the boldness displayed in his films.
Despite each film being so different in content, they do have elements that tie the three together in a recognisable style. One which is remarkably similar to that of Italian Neorealist cinema, using long takes and non-professional actors. It gives Zhangke's cinema a realistic and grounded feeling, one that is tied implicitly to the plights of the people he focusses on. While the slightly European style may put some people off, as it makes Zhangke’s films slow and quiet, it is blended seamlessly with more traditional Chinese elements to create something self-reflexive and intellectually stimulating. However, the blend of documentary-style aesthetic and fiction plot, while highly effective in his fiction films, damage the validity of 24 City, where he has actors playing certain contributors.
Now documentarians have been fictionalising things since Nanook of the North, but I have always found this practice to be slightly suspect, and thus I was a little perturbed when it showed up here. Despite these qualms though Zhangke does his best to represent an area of Chinese life that other filmmakers have ignored or neglected. These are liminal people, in the countryside or in the towns, but those who are doing alright in and amongst the rubble of Chinese rebranding. As a filmmaker, he is sensitive to the issues that trouble them and who they are as people, presenting them as part of a real world, despite some of the outlandish and stylised elements in his films.
While Jia Zhangke has positioned himself so closely to China, it can still remain a mystery to some in the West despite its position as a major player in the modern world. It is a vast nation spanning 3.7 million square miles consisting of a variety of different landscapes and climates. It makes up 20% of the world population; they have six different languages and 54 different ethnic groups. However, one way people gain insight into a nation and a culture is through its cinema. During China’s more obvious communist phase Chinese Cinema was dedicated to sprawling epics of the worker and nation under the Maoist doctrine, all previous culture was swept away in the devastating Cultural Revolution that destroyed many theatres, paintings, music and statues, because it was considered decadent and bourgeois.
However, during the 1980s filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were able to challenge the narratives presented in the people's cinema, presenting morally ambiguous characters and dealing with the scars that came out of the Cultural Revolution in interesting and experimental ways. Following Tiananmen Square, the government cracked down on film leading to an underground movement of filmmakers collectively called the Sixth Generation, of which Jia Zhangke belongs. The Sixth Generation exists as a challenge to the Fifth Generation, embracing realism and anti-romantic views of the world as opposed to the more controlled and lavish productions of those that came before it. Similarly, while the Fifth Generation is more outward facing, making films that appeal to western audiences like Farewell My Concubine and Hero, the Sixth Generation looks internally to create films almost exclusively for Chinese audiences or those aware of the events depicted.
All this history may be slightly exclusionary to British audiences who perhaps are not aware of the historical, sociological and political ties Jia Zhangke puts in his films. However, this is where Arrow really shine, in providing detailed and in-depth extras that enhance the viewing experience of the films contained within the box set. The extras include introductions to all three films by Tony Rayns, who is perhaps the most instrumental in providing a context for each. There are making of documentaries that show Jia Zhangke's creative process as well as lengthy interviews with the director about each film.
The final extra is a feature-length documentary on the director that details his life as well his movies not only following him around his hometown of Fenyang but also interviewing collaborators and providing a personal, well-rounded explanation of what his films meant to him and to those who worked on them. Similarly, Arrow has crafted a technically sound disc presenting the film in 1080p on a Blu-ray disc that has no digital errors in vision or in the 5.1 DTS Master Audio. The menus are laid out in standard fashion with ease of use and minimalism at the centre of Arrow’s design philosophy.
All in all, Three Films by Jia Zhangke is a great collection of films. While the films themselves require a level of knowledge that may be off-putting for western audiences who are not aware of the issues Jia Zhangke is tackling, the extras in the discs cover up the blanks in an informative and engaging way. The style similarly may not be to everyone's taste, but Zhangke's cinema is a vital one, as a number of his films have been unapproved by the National government. Jia Zhangke provides a facet of Chinese society that deserves to be embraced by his nation and the rest of the world, thanks to Arrow Academy’s comprehensive box set, that can begin.