There’s a definitely a buzz for fans of Chinese cinema with the release of Jia Zhangke’s new film Still Life 《三峡好人》. In Shanghai and probably the rest of China, the film’s theatrical release comes on December 14, the same day that Zhang Yimou’s new film Curse of the Golden Flower. And while from the standpoint of the box office returns, it seems pretty clear who the winner will be, Jia doesn’t at all seem flustered by the lackluster box office performance that his film has seen in the limited screenings that have happened over the last few weeks.
In fact, after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Jia’s been on a critical warpath—he recently criticized the “famous Chinese directors” for not having the talent or ability to make commercial, Hollywood type blockbusters. He said that the “Fifth Generation” directors, such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who had revolutionized Chinese film with works that had also brought Chinese cinema to the attention of the world, had now more or less become hacks. He said that at screenings of his films in Germany that people liked his films because they were more accurate reflections of the social reality of China, and that people were getting jaded of glamorous warriors zipping through bamboo forests with magical swords.
Jia’s new film had its China premiere, quite fittingly, in his hometown of Fenyang in Shanxi province, where his first two films Xiao Wu and Platform were set. While he was there, he signed another deal with Beat, Takeshi Kitano’s company, to make another film, called 《刺青时代》（Ci Qing Shidai), which is actually the film that he had to planned to make after 2004’s The World. A child that has a role in his latest film will supposedly get the lead in his next project. We don’t know what to make of the sentence in this blog post that states that Jay Chou (周杰伦) will also have a role in the new film. We hope that was just a joke played on the kid, who is a Jay fan because the irony would otherwise kill us: Jay is in Zhang Yimou’s Curse, the film and the style that Jia has been lambasting all this time. That said, Jia might be able to make Jay act in a Jia film, though until now Jia’s relied heavily on non-actors, getting the kind of truthful performances out of them that remind us of the films Abbas Kiarostami and other directors that often used non-professionals.
For us Shanghai folks, there’s also an interesting piece of news to chew on here: Jia is going to make a documentary for the Shanghai Expo, which means that he is going to hang out here for about three years (probably on and off) and get footage until 2010. The film is tentatively titled 《上海，上海》or Shanghai, Shanghai in English.
This is interesting because we’ve seen one of the docs that he made, called In Public, which was made in Datong, also in Shanxi Province. This film is not a documentary in the conventional sense—there are no characters, no real subjects; in fact it’s more of an abstract investigation into space than anything else. It’s also something of a sketch of the spaces later utilized in the filming of Unknown Pleasures, Jia’s third feature.
We mention all of this because we’re damn curious about what form this documentary would take, since we are sure that Zhang Yimou et. al know what kind of “show” is demanded or considered kosher by Chinese officialdom (e.g. the Olympics ceremony and the associated films). The slogan for the 2010 Expo is “Better City, Better Life”, and we’re not sure if he can create something meaningful out of something so seemingly banal.
If Jia’s recent invectives make him seem like a “dissident artist,” but we wonder what it takes to cross the line and become a “dissident” in a more general sense. By taking the Fifth Generation directors to task, Jia is in some sense taking on a beast bigger than just the films—even if he says that Zhang Yimou has “lowered the audience’s movie-going IQ,” he really cannot pin the blame on Zhang for the deplorable state of film culture in China. If you’ve gone as far as he has, you might as well just point out, for the hell of it, that everything in China is pretty damn commercialized. Heck, he could criticize the educational system while he’s at it. Speaking from personal experience, an appreciation for the indie, underground, non-mainstream (or whatever you want to call it) often begins during high school or university years, when there are teachers, peers, and an atmosphere conducive to such explorations.
But back to Shanghai: this blog post (in Chinese) was written by someone who attended the advanced screening in Shanghai. The title of the post: 不理解贾樟柯，就不会理解中国的现实 (Those who do not understand Jia Zhangke cannot understand the reality of China). We (kind of) agree.
Also on Shanghaiist
Movie Review: Jia Zhangke’s Still Life
Photo from the yangliang8888 Baidu blog