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Moving Pictures

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 filming

Before 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.\n\n\n
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.
Many people don't understand how I then made Platform and, later, Unknown Pleasures, under a ban that wasn't actually lifted until I made The World. But by that point, the overall openness and freedom of China had made it impossible for the government to restrict the filmmaking activity of a single individual-we just made the films. Working under a ban is truly nothing special; it requires no particular daring, and risks no real danger. Before, you needed access to film stock, and then you had to smuggle it out of the country to edit, but now I can tuck a DV tape into my pocket. More interestingly, by 2000, pirated DVD versions of my films started to circulate inside China, and so any Chinese person could finally see them. Of course, pirating means I suffer, because we the filmmakers have no revenue from distribution inside of China, but ultimately, digital technology and the growth of the internet have permanently curtailed the government's control both over both filmmakers' ideology and over the apparatus of production and distribution.In the context of China, I also think DVD piracy is useful. I went through a long period during which my knowledge of film came from reading scripts, or listening to other people's descriptions. I knew about Godard, Truffaut, and films like Kramer vs. Kramer and On Golden Pond, but I hadn't seen any of them. China had these films, but they were locked away in an archive, to be seen by film insiders and people with special privileges. Ordinary citizens had no chance. So I thought that if I could get into the Beijing Film Academy, I could finally see these films. Then, after I became a director, I started writing articles to say that the system was unfair, that really all Chinese should be able to see these films. So, although everyone understands that it is a crime, piracy also opened up film to the people. Overnight, it was as if a thousand film archives opened on street corners: art films, comedy, porn-everything is all there.At the moment, I'm editing my next film, 24 City, about workers in an old military factory in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Factory workers are the people whose fate has changed the most drastically of anyone in China. Before 1990, they had the highest status because they had stable salaries in a planned economy, but since then they have been marginalized: the larger and more prestigious the state factory, the worse the unemployment. After looking at a lot of factories, I found Factory 240, a former airplane-engine plant. It had 20,000 employees and 100,000 dependents, but had essentially ceased production. Its land was bought by a real estate company that has now torn down Factory 240 and built a condominium complex called "24 City." A literal decimation: reduced from 240 to 24! I started filming before the demolition, and shot there at various times for about a year. If you go there now, they've started selling the apartments for approximately $70 per square foot, which is expensive for Chengdu. The workers still live on the compound, playing mahjong and drinking tea.As soon as we finish with 24 City, I will make Shuangxiong Hui, about the Communists and the Nationalists in Hong Kong in 1949. When shooting Still Life, I found my interest turning to history, because when you look closely at contemporary China, you begin to realize that many problems are the result of historical issues that were never properly solved. All the problems are left over-including the Cultural Revolution and 1949-and still haunt us now.

The Films Of Jia Zhang Ke

PICKPOCKET (1997)As former associates reinvent themselves as "entrepreneurs" in the new China, a petty provincial thief fails to change with the changing times.
PLATFORM(2000)The economic and cultural reforms of the 1980s as reflected in the changing fortunes of a traveling performance troupe: starting the decade as the state-sponsored Peasant Culture Group of Fenyang, it privatizes to become the All-Star Rock 'n' Breakdance Electronic Band.
UNKNOWN PLEASURES (2002)A pair of unemployed teenagers drift through the disorienting new capitalist landscape of Datong, their days a seeming haze of karaoke, video games, and pirated DVDs.THE WORLD (2004)Workers in a Disneyesque theme park outside of Beijing embody the collision of globalization and provincialism in comic and heartbreakingly sad ways.
STILL LIFE (2006)A man and a woman come to Fengjie, a town destroyed in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, each in search of a spouse they haven't seen in years, both dwarfed by the massive demolition in process all around them. DONG (2006)A documentary about the figurative painter Liu Xiaodong; filming him make portraits of workers at Three Gorges inspired Jia to make Still Life.USELESS (2007)A documentary about the fashion designer Ma Ke, whose high-end designs are inspired by peasant workers, examines the underpinnings of modern consumption.

And Eight other Films about Contemporary China

ON THE BEAT (1995) Directed by Ning YingA funny, quietly observant film about Beijing policemen captures the city just at the point when Westernization is starting to creep in.THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE (1996) Directed by Geremie Barmé, David Carnochan, Richard Gordon, Gail Hershatter, Carma HintonA devastating and definitive documentary account of the 1989 demonstrations at Tiananmen Square.SOUZHOU RIVER (2000) Directed by Lou YeAn ultra-stylish romantic thriller, set in the seedy bars and back alleys of Shanghai.BLIND SHAFT(2003) Directed by Li YangThe noirish tale of a pair of murderous coal miners that also serves as an indictment of working conditions in impoverished rural regions.A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES (2004) Directed by Feng XiaogangFeng is often likened to Steven Spielberg for his slick sentimentality; his best films, such as this story of rival con artists on a cross-country train, are deft and surprising.MOUNTAIN PATROL: KEKEXILI (2004) Directed by Lu ChuanIn China's northeastern mountains, a group of hard-boiled Tibetans band together to keep their endangered antelope population safe from poachers.CRAZY STONE (2006) Directed by Ning HaoIt's a zany free-for-all as an assortment of schemers and thieves attempt to get their hands on a piece of jade that may prove valuable enough to thwart the shuttering of an old-line factory.LOST IN BEIJING (2007) Directed by Li YuThe owner of a Beijing massage palace clashes with a masseuse and her husband in a film that explores class conflict and the corrosive effect of money on modern values.CHINA BLUE (2007) Directed by Mischa X. PeledShot secretly in a Guangdong factory that manufactures blue jeans for Western companies, this documentary follows a handful of young, underpaid Chinese laborers.

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