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Review Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke

by Michael Berry, Duke University Press, 2022

Professor Michael Berry, director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, is both a prolific and noted translator as well as a scholar of contemporary Chinese literature and cinema. It was through an opportunity to translate for director Jia Zhangke –in conversation with Martin Scorsese at the New York Film Festival in 2002- that his interest in the filmmaker’s work began. It would lead to a study of Jia’s Hometown Trilogy, published by the BFI and organizing a retrospective of his films in the US. This collection of interviews covers the scope of Jia’s career, from Xiao Wu (1997) to Ash is the Purest White (2018). 

The volume also includes an introductory essay that firmly locates the director within a discussion of Chinese film history.  It insists on the role of Jia’s formative encounter with Fifth Generation director Chen Kaige’s 1983 film Yellow Earth, which had broken new ground at the time through both its narrative structure and experiments with the possibilities of filmmaking, including Zhang Yimou’s celebrated cinematography. Michael Berry goes on to address key characteristics shared by Jia and his peers, who made up the Sixth Generation, and how Jia stands out as the Chinese director who succeeded in representing liminal space. China was eager to provide this, from Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, opening up the eighties, to the crackdown of 1989, and the reassessed economic renaissance that followed in the mid-nineties. Jia’s films navigated such transitions while exploring if not autobiography then the impact that the eighties had on him and his friends in his rural small town, Fenyang in Shanxi, and how rapidly state-run capitalism was embraced by the population.  

The interviews are rich with details, anecdotes and descriptions; they also reveal structural articulations in the director’s screenplays and their film representations, which Jia is keenly generous to provide and explain. He goes to great lengths to insist on his use of the Soviet Union film school screenplay model.  The latter was expected to stand on its own literary merits that could be read as something more than a screenplay. This proves helpful in understanding his use of intertextuality, once he begins to explain his move to genre cinema in his last two fiction films.  A Touch of Sin looks to Wuxia and Chang Cheh films, while Ash attempts an encounter between his perception of jianghu and the Hong Kong cinema gangster world as exemplified by John Woo. The entire exchange paints an affable artist who led a film movement in China that distanced itself from expected adaptations of classic novels (1). Jia introduced his country as it was at the moment –the part of it that he knew- to an international audience, and his fellow citizens. He would later explore genre cinema as a means of moving away from Shanxi. 

For those who encountered the director in France, through Xiao Wu at the Festival des Trois Continents, where he was labeled the Chinese Bresson, and the cultural film context in which his films emerged (2), Michael Berry allows us to discover a filmmaker carefully naming other directors, and staying silent about others. 

One name that does come up several times is Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao Hsien, whom Jia admires. There would eventually be a connection between France, Hou and Jia, when cinematographer Eric Gautier was hired for Ash. Gautier is a frequent Oliver Assayas collaborator; the former Cahiers du Cinema critic and filmmaker was among the first champions of Hou in France, and directed the documentary HHH. One filmmaker who remained unnamed however was one of Jia’s peers, the film & media art titan Wang Bing, of whom Dominique Paini, former development director at the Centre Georges-Pompidou, made this enlightened remark, that watching Wang’s West of the Tracks for the first time had been as significant an event in film history as seeing the Lumiere Brothers Train entering the Ciotat Station. Unlike Wang, Jia came to digital technology, as a means of simply shooting, much later and his remarks on that medium remain film-centric, unconcerned with the ontology of those images. This becomes more of an issue of levity when he refers to his documentaries, or to his description and understanding of migrant workers. 

Then there is also the Jia introduced through the Tokyo FilmEx Festival and its commitment to contemporary Asian cinema.  Its director was Shozo Ichiyama, also a producer for Office Kitano, a partner in all of Jia’s films until Takeshi Kitano decided, in2018, to leave the company he had founded. FilmEx allowed for another critical bonding, this time between Jia and French critic and former Cahiers du Cinema director, Jean-Michel Frodon, a frequent guest, and jury member of a festival that went out of its way to put Jia’s films in the foreground. Again, there was inevitably a number of market strategies at work, a world away fromthe intimacy Michael Berry’s book was able to share. 

 After nearly thirty years, Jia remains a creature of festivals and academic spheres. In 2020, Shozo Ichiyama and Tokyo FilmEx joined forces with the Tokyo International Film Festival. For that edition, Hirokazu Koreeda was invited to think of something that would show how this fusion of events placed cinephilia front and center. Koreeda organized a series of online dialogues between Asian filmmakers. Tokyo FilmEx favorites Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Jia Zhangke were all present. In 2021, Shozo Ichiyama officiallybecame the programing director for Tiff.  

Kurosawa has made two films in France, Weerasethakul recently shot one in Columbia. While Jia has forged alliances in France, Japan, and the US, he has yet to direct a film outside China. What Michael Berry’s useful book also reveals are all the topics Jia is adept at not bringing up. 

  1. In the interviews, Jia Zhangke does mention that he was interested in adapting French writer Andre Malraux’s novel The Human Condition. 
  2. The nineties in Europe saw Japanese and Taiwanese films receive considerable festival attention, including awards.Perception of Hong Kong cinema was that its decline had begun, save for Wong Kar Wai. New generational/cultural content from China had started appearing in France: translations of novels, painting exhibitions, and films were simultaneously benefiting from cultural media attention, as if to suggest a scene. 

S.

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