The acclaimed Chinese director Jia Zhang Ke reflects on what film has meant for the modernization of China.
Unknown Pleasures (2002)
Because I was born in 1970, my earliest memories are of the Cultural Revolution-meetings, for example, many meetings, with tens of thousands of people attending. I remember when the fifth volume of Mao's collected writings was released, and all the people in our tiny town in Shanxi province had to line the streets to welcome its arrival at the bookstore. I remember not having enough to eat, because China was very poor. Then, when I started school, in 1977, the Cultural Revolution ended, and the reform era began.And because those first years of reform, from 1978 to 1989, coincided with my growing up, my experience of how China changed is profoundly personal. From hunger, I began to have things to eat. After only having a radio in the house, we got a television and a washing machine. Where before art and literature had served purely as propaganda for government policy, we started to have popular culture-now we could hear pop songs from Hong Kong and Taiwan. This went on until I graduated from high school, in June, 1989, at the precise moment of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. So my adolescence happened while the state was utterly transforming the lives of each and every individual Chinese. In many ways it is still like this today-perhaps not as pronounced, but each political change, each policy shift has an immense influence on individual lives. And so when I began to make movies, this is where my attention turned.Since before I was born, Chinese were taught to think in terms of the collective. Every factory worker was educated to think he or she was just a tiny screw in a vast machine. You are not yourself, you are part of something else, and only in this something else does your life have meaning or value. Then, in the 1980s, as the markets opened, notions of self-consciousness and the idea that every individual had a value, emerged. So, as a filmmaker, I have focused on Chinese individuals, particularly those not living in Beijing or Shanghai, but in more remote places like my home province of Shanxi. I am interested in an ordinary Chinese person's experience, how he feels, and how, even in a peripheral locale, someone's life can be affected by larger events.My film Platform is about young people in a traveling performance troupe in the 1980s. It seems simple, but previously, there was no such thing in China as free travel. In the past, as someone from the provinces, I would need an official letter to go to Beijing, saying what I was coming to do; otherwise no hotel or guesthouse would take me. In the 1980s, regulations loosened, and the characters in my film are an example of that; their itinerant performances are a way of achieving a kind of freedom. Yet the film ends in 1989, when the young people return to Shanxi, and their life returns to how it was before. So you could say that in my films, or in Chinese people's real lives, the individual is constantly struggling to actualize him or herself, but there is always a hand pressing down from above.
Jia (in red) on location filmingBefore I made my first film, Pickpocket, I originally intended to shoot a love story-I even received funding for it-but then I returned to my hometown of Fenyang, where I suddenly discovered that its 3,000-year-old main street was about to be torn down. Such massive, sudden change made me feel that I had to be just as quick to shoot the things that were disappearing. So I came up with a new scenario and made a different movie, and this approach has continued to guide me. My last feature, Still Life, came about because I visited the Three Gorges dam intending to shoot a documentary about a painter who was working there, but once I saw the overwhelmingly surreal quality of that landscape in transition, I knew it also needed to be captured. The buildings looked like ruins. It was as if aliens had come, or as if there had been a war. So it was the space that first grabbed me, and it brought me to the people and their lives, and then to a story. It wasn't my intention to film something about Three Gorges-it was something that evolved.In China, film is the artistic medium that the government cares most about, and the old censorship system is still largely in place. Lenin said that of all the arts, film was the most important to the proletariat, and I think he was right, because at a basic level, it transcends written language. An illiterate man with no way of reading novels or newspapers can appreciate film. Because the Communist Party has always relied on mass media to broadcast its policies, it thus has to pay attention to what films are saying. And so, even today, although there have been great changes and a great loosening, the system maintains control: All movies have to be approved in Beijing, first at the script stage, and then once the film is finished.When I started making films, in 1997, there were stirrings of a new movement. After the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, intellectuals had begun to leave the state system. Writers emerged who weren't part of the national writers union, and independent movies by Zhang Yuan and Wang Xiaoshuai began to appear. When I started at the Beijing Film Academy, in 1993, it was natural for me as a young person to favor these, and to dislike movies coming out of the official system, or, even more, to want some distance from that system. Behind all of this was another reality: The economy was beginning to take off, and friends were starting businesses and making money. So there were funds available-not a lot, but enough-to make films. It was no longer like before, when the state system was the only game in town.So, when I made Pickpocket, I gave no thought to the censors. We just wanted to make the film the way we wanted. In 1998 it showed at the Berlin film festival, and then in 1999 I was banned from making films. This ban had no expiration date, and it meant that I was on a blacklist at all the postproduction companies in Beijing and Shanghai, saying that I couldn't borrow equipment or develop film.
|Digital technology and the growth of the internet have permanently curtailed the government's control both over filmmakers' ideology, and over the apparatus of production and distribution.|