Monday, July 04, 2011

Jiwei Xiao: The Quest for Memory - Documentary and Fiction in Jia Zhangke’s Films

The Quest for Memory: Documentary and Fiction in Jia Zhangke’s Films
by Jiwei Xiao
Senses of Cinema

In March 2010, MOMA dedicated a retrospective to Jia Zhangke, l’enfant terrible of contemporary Chinese cinema. (1) Considering his relatively young age (40) and the relatively short span of his filmmaking career (15 years), it was a remarkable honour. It was also timely. The event seemed to echo a spirit emanating from Jia’s filmmaking—the urgency to come to grips with something new and exciting, something that evolves so fast that one has to look back every now and then, and with attention. In the eyes of the MOMA curator, Jia’s cinema derives its power from the interplay of seemingly contradictory impulses:

Aiming to restore the concrete memory of place and to evoke individual history in a rapidly modernizing society, the filmmaker recovers the immediate past in order to imagine the future. His films reflect reality truthfully, while simultaneously using fantasy and a distinct aesthetic to pose existential questions about life and status in a society in flux. Through rigorous specificity, his art attains universal scope and appeal. (2)

The artistry with which Jia weaves these very different elements together is perhaps also what keeps his film original and innovative enough to avoid congealing into the predictable and imitable. Lesser filmmakers emulate Jia-ist realism—long takes, gritty pictures, elliptical narratives, and subjects about social marginality, etc.—but only so far as to get the surface effects right. (3) Their art lacks the intellectual weight and psychological subtlety of Jia’s, and in particular, the poetic imaginativeness which turns his realism of the quotidian, the coarse, and the ephemeral into something endearing and enduring. It is a lyricism that comes from the illumination of time and memory. Indeed, memory, something that Jia himself has encouraged us to associate his films with, seems to have become his preoccupation lately, as can be seen in his most recent documentary Hai shang chuanqi (I Wish I knew, 2010), the 2008 quasi-documentary Er shi si cheng ji (24 City), and a few shorts such asWomen de shinian, (Our Ten Years, 2007). But while these recent films reflect a heightened anxiousness to recover and represent memory, the whole corpus of Jia’s work can be viewed in light of his idea that cinema has a “function as memory” and should “partake in historical experience.” (4)

At first blush it might sound odd to claim that memory plays such an important role in a director’s work that has been known for its exceptional documentary qualities and are so profoundly rooted in “the present” –actual occurrences of everyday life and ongoing social, cultural and economic changes. Jia never uses flashback, voice-over, or other technical cues to contrast different times and create a subjective consciousness of memory and history. All of his works are squarely set in a single unified time frame. Yet despite their strong “contemporary” flavour, his films teem in period-authentic details and traffic in their effects to evoke a past time. Details—ranging from pop songs, fashions, everyday bric-a-brac, to the less tangible ones such as voices, gestures, demeanours and manners—“feel like time capsules of the here and now.” (5) Moreover, one detects a consciousness of time and memory that knocks the contemporaneity of his film off kilter, increasingly so in his latest works. In Sanxia haoren, (Still Life, 2006), a film about the demolition and flooding of an ancient river town for the Three Gorges Dam project, Jia’s mixture of documentary realism and computerized surrealism suspends the present, turning it into a site of different layers of time—embodied by the archaeological ruins, the more recent socialist industrial wreckage, the mundane everyday life, and the futuristic-looking objects and figures of phantasm. In 24 City, Jia’s protracted long take further lengthens as if to counter the impact of the accelerated passing of time; poetry and photographic stills are used profusely to induce a sense of duration. As a result, despite its strong documentary quality, 24 City has the feel of a past event—objects and people appear as if they were remembered, not perceived. A die-hard realist, Jia Zhangke is therefore also a dreamer trying to use memory to battle the world in transience: he must act as if his camera could outstrip the fleeing present by gazing at it hard and long enough and by registering its minute-by-minute change, as if reality were always on the cusp of disappearance. (6)

The consciousness of memory and its staying force also deeply affects the way Jia Zhangke conceives his characters. While he shows strong moral sympathy for the underprivileged and the disenfranchised, the director refuses to dramatize and allegorize them as hapless victims of political and social destinies. His characters are ordinary folks who try to grow with the changing world but are unable to keep up with it. Jia seizes upon their “tardiness” to prick the official image of China’s “great-leap-forward” progress transmitted through government-controlled media. To varying degrees, all of Jia’s films reveal a “time lag” between the fast and furious economic transformations and the slower-moving changes in people’s behaviour and mentality. Jia’s humble characters are the unlikely romantics who would not let go of the past: Xiao Wu the pickpocket foolishly and sentimentally clings to the expired relationships (The Pickpocket); Han Sanming the tongue-tied and tough farmer-turned-miner travels all the way from his northern hometown to the Three Gorges area to recover his long lost family with only a photo and an invalid address in hand (Still Life); even the thuggish Xiao Ma Ge is hopelessly nostalgic, as he invites his friend and us to listen to his cell phone ring-tone set to the theme song of the 1980s’ Cantonese pop TV series “Shanghai Bund” (Still Life). Through the depiction of these “losers,” where time seems to slow down and tarry, Jia reveals the individual as a historical being—he/she is the crossroads where past and present meet. Whereas the soul is still tied to the receding past, the individual’s person is irresistibly, sometimes violently, swept along and bent forward by the charge of reality and the blast from the future.

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