Wednesday, April 22, 2015

2015 Cannes Check #4 - Jia Zhangke

Hard to believe that I haven't done a post about Jia Zhangke and his movies but seems that no, this will the first one for one of my most admired contemporary Chinese filmmakers, one that I recently discover and amazed me with the most mesmerizing images of a transforming China. Truly fascinating filmmaker.

Will try not to do a highly praising elegy, which he absolutely deserves. Will try to go to the point, to state facts. So let's hope I do it in the fourth installment of the Directors check series.

Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke was born in 1970 in Fenyang, Shanxi Province of China. He studied painting at the School of Fine Arts in Taiyuan before entering the Beijing Film Academy in 1993, he graduated in 1997. He developed an interest in fiction and in 1995 founded the Youth Experimental Film Group. While still a film student he made three short films, 1994 One Day in Beijing, 1995 Going Home and 1996 Du Du.

It is in 1997 that he directs his first feature film, Xiao Wu (The Pickpocket) that was screened at 1998 Berlinale and went to win honors in Berlin and other festivals from the fest circuit. Film definitively rejects the 5th Generation of Chinese filmmakers tendency to move away from reality of modern China into the realm of historic legend; so film promotes the realism of a modern -still transforming- China. Xiao Wu becomes the first installment of a loose trilogy about life in Fenyang, his birthplace; the others are his second feature film, acclaimed 2000 Platform and his third 2002 Unknown Pleasures.

Zhantai (Platform) allows Jia Zhangke to open In Competition for a Golden Lion at 2000 Biennale and Ren Xiao Yao (Unknown Pleasures) takes him to his first visit to Cannes where he was In Competition for the Palme d'Or. In between these films he does two documentary short films, award winner 2001 Gong gong chang suo (In Public) and 2001 Gou de zhuangkuang (The Condition of Dogs).

Up to this moment he was working out of China's government system, so his films were considered "underground" or independent. His fourth feature film, 2004 Shijie (The World) is the first he does with Chinese government approval and was screened In Competition for a Golden Lion at 2004 Venice fest. His first major accolade comes with his fifth feature film, fantastic Sanxia haoren (Still Life) that won the Golden Lion at 2006 Bienale, a film I strongly suggest you see along with the film companion, Dong a documentary done while filming Still Life. As a matter of fact believe is the perfect film to start learning about Jia Zhangke, then you can go back to his previous films and then move forward to his latest.

What follows in his filmography is a series of amazing documentaries, short films, and video shorts, interrupted by three feature films that in my opinion mark a style evolution into less realistic -perhaps more commercial- style, strange 2008 Er shi si cheng ji (24 City), violent 2013 Cannes Best Screenplay winner a Tian zhu ding (Touch of Sin) and his latest, Cannes In Competition 2015 Shan He Gu Ren (Mountains May Depart).

With only eight (8) feature films, Jia Zhangke has traveled the three top film festivals collecting major accolades; as a matter of fact this is his 7th time in Cannes and the 4th time he has a film In Competition. Besides the fourth times In Competition, he has been once in 2010 Un Certain Regard section with documentary Hai shang chuan qi (I Wish I Knew), once as Jury President of the Cinéfondation and Short Films, and once as 2014 main competition jury member. We can't forget that this year he will be honored with the Société des réalisateurs de films (SRF) prize, the Carrose d'Or.

In my opinion his most known achievement is being recognized as the leading figure of the 6th Generation of Chinese filmmakers and there is no doubt that he is well-known among international cinema scholars, cinephiles and film lovers. So much known that in 2010 he was honored with a MoMA Retrospective, which is a rare event for a young, living filmmaker. As definitively agree with what is said in MoMA's retrospective presentation and believe presents an accurate summary of his style, will share it with you all.

Jia Zhangke has emerged as the leading figure of the sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers and one of international cinema’s most celebrated artists. Merging gritty realism with elegance and originality, he tackles contemporary subject matter in both documentary and fiction projects—and often fuses the two approaches to great effect. In little more than a decade he has created a body of work that reflects the enormous changes of the past fifty years of Chinese society. Much admired by critics and an inspiration to fellow filmmakers, Jia has developed an original, ever-evolving style marked by fluid camera movement and a porous, symbiotic relationship between the real and the imagined. His films—characterized by their plainspoken directness and postmodern aesthetic and peopled with amateurs as well as professional actors—illuminate the transformations taking place in China’s environment, architecture, and society by placing everyday people in the midst of a landscape in turmoil. 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.

My own explanation of Jia Zhangke particular style rotates around his masterful blend of documentary and fiction styles, a blend that is present in both his fiction films as well as in his documentaries. That's why his films look so gritty, so realistic, so grim, so unusual, so particular; most filmed with a coldish palette that enhances reality and makes film visually mesmerizing.

If you wish to read more about Jia Zhangke I suggest to read the extensive article at Senses of Cinema here.

So, what are my expectations for Shan He Gu Ren (Mountains May Depart)? Not easy to say as always very little info is available about his films before the premier; but this time there is something different, it is the first time ever he films outside China - or in another language (the Australia scenes are filmed in English), so surprisingly there is some info available that I'm sharing.

According to Jia Zhangke's own words, he wants to "examine how Chinese society is changing, how our emotions change over time and how in the future we may have lost our feelings"; and most interesting, the last third of the film takes place in a futuristic version of Australia. Will be the first time that he deals in one film with the past, the present and the future; social realities are present only in the background, while in the foreground he highlights the difficult but unavoidable moments that everyone is meant to experience, whatever the era in which he lives.

What do I wish for Mountains May Depart? Easier is to let loose my imagination to hope film first part will have the great style of his three first films, film second part will show the style transition in his latest films and film third part will gives us a keyhole peek into what he could be evolving to. Wouldn't that be just perfect? Sigh.

Basic info about 山河故人 Shan He Gu Ren (Mountains May Depart) (aka Mountain River Old Friend)
Director: Jia Zhangke
Scriptwriter: Jia Zhangke
Language: Mandarin and English
Runtime: 120 mins
Production countries: China, Japan and France
Production Companies: XStream Pictures, Shanghai Film Group, Office Kitano (Shozo Ichiyama), Arte France Cinéma, MK2
Distribution: Ad Vitam Distribution in France, MK2 International Sales and French distributor;

Cast: Tao Zhao (Jia Zhangke wife), Yi Zhang, Sylvia Chang, Zijian Dong, Sanming Han, Jin Dong Liang

Plot Summary
China, 1999. In Fenyang, childhood friends Liangzi, a coal miner, and Zhang, the owner of a gas station, are both in love with Tao, the town beauty. Tao eventually marries the wealthier Zhang and they have a son he names Dollar.
2014. Tao is divorced and her son emigrates to Australia with his business magnate father.
Australia, 2025. 19-year-old Dollar no longer speaks Chinese and can barely communicate with his now bankrupt father. All that he remembers of his mother is her name…
From China to Australia, the lives, loves, hopes and disillusions of three individuals in a society changing at breakneck speed.

Film Stills

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