Filmmaker Retrospective: The Realistic Cinema of Jia Zhangke

best jia zhangke films

Over the past decade, Jia Zhangke has secured his position not only as the leading figure of China’s “Sixth Generation” of filmmakers, but also as one of the world’s most important contemporary directors. Hailing from the small city of Fenyang in Shanxi province, Jia spent his free time on the streets, a self-professed hooligan of sorts, and it wasn’t until he happened upon a screening of Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth that he found his calling.

According to Jia, Yellow Earth introduced him to the power of cinema and changed, perhaps even saved his life. He went on to attend Beijing Film Academy, China’s most prestigious film school, and completed his first short film, One Day in Beijing, in 1994. However, it was his second short film, Xiao Shan Going Home, which first introduced elements of what later became his unique signature style.

From the beginning, Jia has displayed two primary interests when it comes to the subject matter that forms the thematic core of all of his films: the common people and the social environment in which they live. Jia sometimes refers to his canon of work as a documented history of the common people and considers himself not only a filmmaker, but also a social historian.

He is specifically interested in the ways in which China’s vast social changes affect the lives of those who struggle within the lowest rung of Chinese society and his chosen film subjects often include migrant workers, pickpockets, coalminers, unemployed youths, and street performers.

Jia’s first three films (Xiao Wu, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures, also known as the Hometown Trilogy) were independently produced. This created a situation where, although these films were highly lauded abroad and won accolades at international film festivals, they were refused official release in China, which requires all scripts to be pre-approved. While this move cemented his reputation as an underground filmmaker, it also hampered his ability to reach his primarily intended audience, the Chinese people.

It wasn’t until 2004 that Jia rectified his situation with the Chinese authorities, obtaining official release for The World as well as the much-belated release of his Hometown Trilogy. However, Jia’s new approach to film production has had no adverse effects on the quality, subject matter, or the international appeal of his work. His 2006 release, Still Life, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and his 2013 release, A Touch of Sin, won Best Screenplay at Cannes. In addition to feature films, Jia continues to direct award-winning documentaries and short films. His next feature, Mountain River Old Friend, begins shooting in October.


1. Xiao Wu (1997)

Xiao Wu (1997)

For his first feature film, Jia returns to the familiar streets of his hometown, Fenyang, in Shanxi province. Xiao Wu introduces us to a smalltime pickpocket as he struggles to come to terms with the social and economic changes taking place in China during the heyday of the country’s great economic and industrial boom. Shot mostly in handheld 16mm, the film evokes a gritty documentary-like style and is divided into three distinct narrative segments, each detailing the disintegration of a specific personal relationship as Xiao Wu slowly spirals toward his downfall.

The film stars Jia’s close friend and Beijing Film Academy classmate Wang Hongwei, who first worked with Jia on his 1995 short film Xiao Shan Going Home and would go on to play a role in most of Jia’s feature films. Many of the Xiao Wu’s supporting characters are played by Jia’s old Fenyang buddies and their Shanxi accents and non-professional approach to acting create a sense of realism and authenticity as we are immersed in Xiao Wu’s isolated and unforgiving world.

Xiao Wu explores a theme that resonates throughout Jia’s filmography: the struggle of the common people to adapt to China’s rapid economic and social development. Xiao Wu’s friends seem to be advancing both socially and materially, taking full advantage of new economic opportunities to improve their lot in life. Xiao Wu, on the other hand, seems stuck in place, unwilling, or perhaps unable, to change with the times. This point is driven home when his former best friend and ex-partner in crime, now an up-and-coming local businessman, refuses to invite Xiao Wu to his wedding for fear that his presence might mar his newly polished reputation.

Xiao Wu continues to go about business as usual, picking pockets despite a government crackdown on petty crime. The viewer becomes Xiao Wu’s silent companion as he confronts his old friend, engages in a doomed love affair with a karaoke hostess, and is eventually forsaken even by his own family. Heartfelt and unflinchingly honest, Xiao Wu provides a great introduction to Jia’s directorial style and remains one of his most accessible films to date.


2. Platform (2000)


Spanning the decade from 1979 to 1989, Platform is an epic film which explores the effects of the social and cultural changes of the reform era on a Fenyang-based performance troupe. Shot in 35mm, Platform forsakes the handheld camerawork of Xiao Wu in favor of a more restrained, stationary style comprised of long shots and long takes inspired by the works Yasujiro Ozu and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, two of Jia’s major cinematic influences.

Unlike Xiao Wu, which featured a rather straightforward narrative centered on a single protagonist, Platform is comprised of several interwoven character arcs in a style that was to become a hallmark of Jia’s future films. Wang Hongwei returns in the lead role as troupe member Cui Mingliang and the film marks Jia’s first collaboration with Zhao Tao who would later become his second wife and recurring lead actress.

Platform’s central story revolves around two couples, all members of a local song and dance troupe called the Peasant Culture Group. The awkward traditional romance between Cui Mingliang and Yin Ruijuan (Zhao Tao) is made difficult by the fact that her father considers him a deadbeat with no future. Meanwhile, the more modern courtship between Zhang Jun (Liang Jingdong) and Zhong Ping (Yang Tianyi) is complicated not only by Zhang Jun’s playboyish nature, but also by an accidental pregnancy. As the relationships of the two couples evolve, so does the world around them.

The film explores the ramifications and cultural changes brought about by China’s Open Door Policy which resulted in new modes of self-expression and popular entertainment that were impossible during the preceding era of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang Jun, for example, introduces Cui Mingliang to the hipness of bellbottom trousers while the troupe begins to add pop music and western dance routines to its repertoire of Mao-era Communist tunes.

The biggest change, however, comes when the troupe is allowed to privatize and takes to the road, hoping to increase their audience appeal by changing their name to the “Shenzhen All-Stars Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band” despite the fact that none of the members have ever been to Shenzhen.

Platform was chosen as the second best film of the decade by Cinematheque, a group of more than sixty film experts associated with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and continues to be one of Jia’s most well-regarded and influential works.

Also of the note, Platform introduces an important recurring character in Jia’s filmography: Cui Mingliang’s cousin Sanming, an unfortunate peasant seemingly doomed to a life in the coalmines of Shanxi. Played by Jia’s real-life cousin Han Sanming, the character later returns for cameos in both The World and A Touch of Sin and takes the lead in Still Life, Jia’s award-winning 2006 release.


3. Unknown Pleasures (2002)

Unknown Pleasures (2002)

Unknown Pleasures introduces us to two apathetic and underachieving young men, Bin Bin (Zhao Weiwei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong), who spend their days roaming about aimlessly in Datong, a rapidly advancing coal-mining city in Shanxi province. The film marks Jia’s first foray into digital video, forsaking the grittiness of the first two films for somewhat crisper, cleaner images. Much like Xiao Wu and Platform, the plot reveals itself slowly and meticulously as the unobtrusive camerawork relegates the viewer to an ever-present, but distant, spectator.

The vast environmental changes taking place in China, a peripheral element in the first two films, becomes a key element in Unknown Pleasures. As Datong is demolished and reconstructed all around them, Bin Bin and Xiao Ji are left feeling alienated and lost within their own hometown and their feeble and misguided attempts to improve their social situation, culminating in a pathetically amateurish attempted bank robbery, are met with constant failure.

Xiao Ji falls in love with Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), a local dancer recently employed to promote a thriving liquor chain, much to the chagrin of her thuggish boyfriend/agent, Qiao San (Li Zhubin). Meanwhile, Bin Bin struggles to come to terms with his girlfriend’s plans to leave for university in Beijing, a situation made even more difficult by the recent discovery that he has hepatitis.

Fresh on the heels of joining the WTO, China has become inundated with American products and decontextualized elements of American pop culture despite ongoing social anxieties regarding the relationship between the two powerful nations. Bin Bin, for example, is rewarded with a can of Coca-Cola while Xiao Ji’s unhealthy fascination with the glamorized criminality of Pulp Fiction, coupled with the ‘get rich no matter what’ sentimentality of the time, ultimately leads to the duo’s downfall.

Much like Platform, the film makes excellent use of contemporary pop music and television clips to accurately capture a specific period in time. For example, when we join a group of locals on the street, huddled around a small television to witness the announcement that Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics, we cannot help but celebrate with them. However, the Olympic fanfare is powerfully juxtaposed with an indifferent Xiao Ji, who leans against a nearby market stall, recovering from the shock of an unexpected beating by Qiao San’s gang of thugs.

Jia also takes the opportunity to playfully examine the role of his own films within the youth subculture of the time. In one of the film’s few lighter moments, Xiao Wu (Wang Hongwei) attempts to purchase bootleg DVDs of Xiao Wu and Platform from Bin Bin, who has taken to peddling pirated movies from a makeshift street cart. To Xiao Wu’s great disappointment, however, Bin Bin has neither film in stock.