Filmmaker Retrospective: The Realistic Cinema of Jia Zhangke

4. The World (2004)

The World (2004)

The World was the first of Jia’s films to receive financial support from a domestic Chinese studio and also the first to receive official approval by the Chinese authorities for theatrical release. The film’s comparatively large budget allowed Jia to afford lavish set designs and colorful costumes. Unlike the Hometown Trilogy, The World is not set in Shanxi, but rather in a theme park in the suburbs of Beijing.

Beijing World Park features scale reproductions of world landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Twin Towers, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Pyramids of Egypt. Jia takes full advantage of this elaborate setting to explore the paradoxical and often artificial nature of globalization and modernization and their relationship to modern Chinese society as well as Beijing’s stature as a “world city”.

Tao (Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng) migrated from Shanxi to Beijing with big dreams, but both have become somewhat trapped in their jobs at the theme park, Tao as a performer and Taisheng as a security guard. They spend their days working and wandering amidst imitation world landmarks despite the fact that neither of them has ever even been on an airplane. Their already troubled relationship grows worse when Taisheng meets and falls for Qun (Wang Yiqun), a married woman who runs a clothing outlet specializing in knockoffs of famous international brands.

Wang Hongwei returns in a small role as Sanlai who, along with his unfortunately nicknamed companion Little Sister, follows Taisheng to Beijing to find work at one of the city’s many construction sites, a decision that ultimately results in misfortune. Also, keep an eye out for a short cameo appearance by Sanming (Han Sanming), the small town coalminer from Platform whose story continues in Still Life. As in all of Jia’s films, it’s the people that really matter, and The World features a variety of subplots involving several peripheral characters, some disheartening and others hopeful.

In order to drive home the artificiality of the characters’ lives, Jia forgoes his usual pop music soundtrack in favor of a recurring and highly effective electronic tune. He also continues to push the limits of narrative structure and cohesion, offering the viewer little guidance as the plot slowly, almost imperceptibly, unfolds.

Also new to Jia’s work is the inclusion of short animated sequences, triggered by text messages, throughout the film. Despite its stunning costumes and beautiful digital cinematography, The World evokes an environment that is just as dark and inescapable as that found in any of Jia’s previous works and culminates in one of his most unforgettably tragic endings to date.


5. Still Life (2006)

Still Life (2006)

Jia travels even further from home for Still Life, which is set along the Yangtze River in the soon-to-be-flooded town of Fengjie, near the very heart of the massive Three Gorges Dam Project. The location lends itself perfectly to the camera, the scenic beauty of the river valley contrasting to great effect with the uninviting and nearly-demolished town.

Throughout the film, Jia lingers on scenes of demolition and destruction, striving to show environmental aspects of the dam project that rarely appear in popular media. Like The World, the story is linked to Shanxi through its lead characters. Sanming (Han Sanming), who first appeared in Platform, travels to Fengjie in search of an ex-wife who fled with his daughter sixteen years ago.

We also meet Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), a nurse from Shanxi, who has come to Fengjie to find her husband, a shady businessman who has been out of touch for two years. Although the two leads never meet, their stories are interlinked through shared locations and minor characters.

Sanming, discovering that his ex-wife’s former home is now underwater, takes a job with a demolition crew and soon befriends the film’s most tragic character, Brother Mark (Zhou Lin), a young laborer and pseudo-gangster with a penchant for quoting Chow Yun-Fat. Meanwhile, assisted by her husband’s friend Wang Dongming (Wang Hongwei), Shen Hong gathers clues regarding her husband’s mysterious silence.

Similar to his experimentation with animated sequences in The World, Jia plays with the viewer’s expectations by including two strange dreamlike sequences featuring UFOs. The story plays out over three distinct chapters and when Sanming and Shen Hong are finally reunited with their missing spouses, the destinies of all four people, much like the Three Gorges region itself, are ultimately changed forever.


6. 24 City (2008)

24 City

In 24 City, Jia combines documentary material with fictive elements to tell the true story of a state-owned aeronautics factory, Factory 420, in Chengdu that was closed down to make way for a luxury high-rise apartment complex, the titular 24 City. Factory 420, which also secretly manufactured munitions during the Korean War, was so large at one time that it was almost a self-contained city unto itself, hosting its own schools, shops, and even a cinema.

For many of the interviewees, a group spanning three generations, Factory 420 was the only world they knew and their sentimental accounts of their lives at the factory and their reactions to its closure are both heartfelt and genuinely touching.

Although the film is presented as a straightforward documentary, Jia plays with the formula by introducing trained actors into the mix. This unique, although somewhat controversial, approach allows Jia to shape the narrative by artfully blending truth and fiction. Four of the eight primary interviews are scripted and no clues, other than the recognizability of stars Zhao Tao, Joan Chen, Lü Liping, and Chen Jianbin, are provided to indicate the shift between the real and the unreal.

Each carefully framed interview is interspersed with musical numbers and bits of poetry which combine to create a surreal and haunting experience. 24 City provides a bleak glimpse into the psyche of the people who devoted their lives and loyalty to institutions that once seemed imperishable, but were eventually devoured by China’s rise as an economic powerhouse. Although understated, the social and political implications of 24 City are as thought-provoking as they are heartbreaking.


7. A Touch of Sin (2013)


Jia’s most recent work, A Touch of Sin deviates stylistically from his previous efforts in its inclusion of several scenes of intense and graphic violence, something that the director previously allowed to take place primarily off-camera. With a title inspired by King Hu’s wuxia classic A Touch of Zen, the film is Jia’s most action-oriented effort to date. However, it stays true to Jia’s consistent theme of exploring social issues, in this case corruption and the recent increase in violent crime, and their effect on the lives of common people.

Like all of Jia’s features since Unknown Pleasures, the film is shot in digital video, a format that seems to work well with his fast-paced shooting style. The film is divided into four distinct episodes, each loosely inspired by actual, and highly controversial, current events. Although the stories upon which the first three segments are based may not be well-known to western audiences, the fourth segment touches upon the Foxconn suicides, an event which created a media frenzy in late 2010.

A Touch of Sin begins where many films end, quickly developing into a brutal climax of sorts when Hu Dahai (Jiang Wu), a miner who is beaten and humiliated in his quest to make his village leaders stick to their word following the sale of the local coal mine, decides to take justice into his own hands. In the second segment we meet Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), a drifting gunman who returns to his hometown to spend the New Year holiday with his estranged family, but is unable to resist the tempting thrill of violence.

Next, we meet Zheng Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao), a middle-aged mistress and spa employee who is forced to defend herself against a dangerously insistent patron. Finally, we encounter Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a young man from Hunan who, after being held responsible for a co-worker’s work-related injury, flees his job at a garment factory and becomes a host at a high-class brothel in Dongguan, China’s prostitution capital, eventually falling in love with one of his female co-workers. As one would expect, none of these stories has a particularly happy ending.

Author Bio: Luke Smith works as an editor and writing instructor. He has spent most of the past decade living, working, and studying in China.