For the past half century, Chinese cinematography has undergone several dramatic changes due in no small part to the political movements of the Chinese government. During the Cultural Revolution, heavy censorship and regulations limited viewership of films throughout the nation. The few films that were allowed by the Chinese government were politically motivated and filled with propaganda that spewed forth political agendas and social ideologies. Though there was a short period of reprieve during 1956-1957 as part of the Hundred Flowers Movement, which encouraged the expression of the people’s opinions regarding the Communist Party, censorship was once again forcefully reestablished and those that had spoken too critically during the Hundred Flowers Campaign were punished harshly. (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica) It was not until several years later that Chinese films were revived to be enjoyed by the population again.
Following the Cultural Revolution, the film industry steadily regained popularity. Encouraged by Deng Xiaoping, popular films—directed largely by the Fourth Generation filmmakers who had personally lived through the ordeal—primarily expressed the traumatic events of the Cultural Revolution and the Anti-Rightist campaigns. (Fifth Generation) However, this period of filmmaking did not last long and, by the 1980s, the younger Fifth Generation filmmakers quickly took over the industry.
Of this Fifth Generation, popular filmmakers include Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Zhang Junzhao, whose works have also been widely popular amongst international audiences. In fact, one of the aims of the Fifth Generation was to show off what they were capable of to the rest of the world after having been restricted and contained so heavily by political parties for the previous few decades. Many of the works by the directors of this generation also contained critiques regarding political and social topics, and yet the state allowed the production and distribution of these films because they expressed controversial ideas indirectly by conveying stories taking place in the distant past or explicitly praising the Communist Party. (Fifth Generation) Nonetheless, the implicit commentary was still apparent and was often even imposed directly by the viewers themselves.
Finally, with the invention and proliferation of digital film in China during the early 1990s, independent filmmakers suddenly found it much easier to produce their own works. Thus arose the Sixth Generation, also referred to as the “Urban Generation” and “Underground Filmmakers.” The term is rather vague and therefore encompasses a broad spectrum of styles, topics, and opinions. However, common to most of these filmmakers was the urge to capture and present reality in the face of the Chinese government’s censorship policies. Often utilizing independently raised funding and non-professional actors, Sixth Generation films had documentary style cinematography that looked squarely at several controversial social topics and, as a result, were consistently prohibited from domestic showings by Chinese censors until the early-2000s. (Sixth Generation (film directors))
Despite the resistance by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, movie piracy, being as widespread as it was, has allowed Chinese audiences access despite the regulator’s best efforts. Furthermore, movie censorship in China was significantly relaxed in 2002 and 2003 with the passing of the Film Management Regulations as the views of the Chinese State Council’s views on film changed, no longer seeing it as a primary medium for propaganda. As a result, several Sixth Generation films have even received state support and funding. (Bai)
One sixth generation filmmaker that has had significant success both in China as well as internationally is director Jia Zhangke. Following in the style of his time, his movies consist of long takes shot with dark and often harsh backgrounds that reflect the reality of his subject matter. Since graduating from the Beijing Film Academy, Jia Zhangke has received numerous awards including the Cannes Film Festival Prix du Scenario for A Touch of Sin, the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival for Still Life, and the Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Foreign Language Film for The World. According to The New Yorker, “Jia is simply one of the best and most important directors in the world.” Additionally, Jia Zhangke has been praised for the realism within his works that reflect an “authentic” China. (Zhu (2013))
Jia Zhangke: A Deeper Look into China
For this paper, I argue that by using many personal, and therefore subjective perspectives, Jia gives us a seemingly objective portrayal of the realities of China’s corruption and growth and its effects on those left behind. In all three of his works: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), and A Touch of Sin (2013), Jia Zhangke portrays gritty narratives of socio-economic tragedies that chronicle the corruption of the few wealthy and the many struggles of the powerless—a hard contrast against China’s official image on the world stage.
Jia Zhangke manages to establish these authentic descriptions through three major themes: ruthless realism, poignant connections between corruption and loss, and direct juxtapositions of the past with the present. Though the three films I will be analyzing take place in vastly different contexts, these themes present themselves in each work and, therefore, provide a documentaryesque portrayal of an unofficial and undecorated version of China.
The first, most apparent aspect that all three films share is the use of multiple and seemingly disparate perspectives, covering a broad range of experiences, losses, and defeats. In The World the main plot follows the relationship between a young couple, Tao and Taisheng, who work at a theme park called “Beijing’s World Park”, which features replicas of popular tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Tower of Pisa, etc. However, the storyline transitions between multiple characters and the audience is shown the details of one of Tao’s fellow dancers and her emotionally abusive boyfriend, Taisheng’s childhood friend who now works construction, and a security guard thief. (Shih) Meanwhile, Still Life shows two completely different stories of lost loves reunited in Fengjie, now flooded due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. The first is of a poor miner named Han Sanming who travels to Fengjie in search of his ex-wife in hopes of reuniting with his daughter. The other is of a nurse looking to divorce her husband whom she has not seen in two years. And lastly, A Touch of Sin presents four completely separate events in four parts: a miner frustrated by the corruption in his village who is compelled to punish the guilty by his own means; a cold-blooded thief enraptured by guns and the power it gives him; the mistress of a married man turned murderer; and a young factory worker forced from one dead-end job to the next until he is finally driven to his unremarkable suicide.
By avoiding the narrow focus of just one narrative, Jia Zhangke creates a full realm within each movie that audience members then get to peek into and observe for a short amount of time. In doing so, Jia Zhangke emphasizes the experiences of each character rather than drawing special attention to any single person, relationship, or event. As such, each movie exists as a portrayal of a piece of the world, simultaneously essential to our understanding of the reality Jia Zhangke is trying to represent, and meaningless when separated from the context of the other perspectives.
Speaking of context, the very settings of each movie are highly accentuated as Jia Zhangke’s personal cinematographic style portrays his characters as deeply entrenched in their environments. In addition to long shots, Jia Zhangke’s movie rarely have any close-ups of the characters. Instead, entire conversations are presented at a distance with the background taking the majority of the screen. Consequently, viewers are constantly aware of where and when the characters are in time.
Furthermore, as a result of the numerous stories described in each movie, the audience is shown a broad and diverse array of environments that offer a fuller look into the unforgiving realities in which the characters exist. For example, in The World, we are clearly presented with the inner workings of the theme park and the shoddy living conditions of the employees, an irresponsibly dangerous construction site, and the depressing state of a hospital room. Then, in Still Life, we see the haphazard demolition of an entire small city. And lastly, with A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke reveals the lifestyles of two very different villages in poverty; a bustling city; a brothel under the cover of being a sauna; a textile factory; and a hotel for diplomats, government officials, and the wealthy. Jia does not embellish his settings, nor does any two settings seem exactly alike in their squalor. In being shown these disgraceful sites in such an objective and unapologetic manner, in combination with the numerous narratives, audience members are presented a complete and consistent perspective, which, in its unflinching and unshifting portrayal can be that is then received as unquestionably realistic.
With an established sense of reality, Jia Zhangke’s works then color each narrative with moral deterioration as well as with connections between the past and the present. In fact, a consistent theme throughout all three movies is that of the helplessness of those left behind by extreme economic development. By including the heartbreaking struggles of the lower class, Jia Zhangke not only reveals what is actually happening in underground China, but he also pins the dishonorable negligence of corrupted officials with the responsibility for common tragedies including loss, involuntary prostitution, and death.
A Touch of Sin most clearly demonstrates Jia Zhangke’s examination of China’s globalization and the corruption that has resulted from it. For instance, the first segment of the movie is based on the sale of the property rights of the village’s mine without the say of the village’s hopelessly poor inhabitants. After the mayor reneges on his promise to pay yearly dividends, the main protagonist makes it his mission to bring him to justice. Of course, his powerlessness is made apparent as he is faced with bureaucratic obstacles.
Moreover, no one else in the village has any motivation or desire to even acknowledge his hopeless cause. Ultimately, he brutally murders all who were involved. As the movie progresses through three more stories, Jia Zhangke points out a number of other societal flaws ranging from sexual harassment to the psychological abuse suffered by young, overworked factory laborers all in the context of economic inequality, moral deterioration, and corruption. (Cai)
Similarly, The World takes time to outline financially driven hardships including that of a construction worker that is fatally injured in an accident at work whose last words, scribbled on a piece of scrap paper, are the records of debts he still owed to various friends and colleagues. It is revealed during his rushed operation at the hospital that the young worker had been taking on extra shifts in order to earn more money, a common occurrence amongst the younger construction workers. The movie also includes an example of how many women end up with no choice but to turn to prostitution in order to survive the costs of living. The heroine of the movie is even pressured into becoming an escort by a Chinese official whilst out with her friends. Although The World does not contain nearly as much violence as A Touch of Sin, the struggles of the characters in both movies pertain directly to the same driving forces of uncontained economic growth and negligible human rights clearly present throughout both of the works.
Furthermore, Still Life contains references to the very same hardships shown in The World and A Touch of Sin. Still Life takes place in Fengjie, a village half displaced due to the flooding caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and half undergoing complete demolition amidst rapid reconstruction and development. As with Jia Zhangke’s other works, Still Life shows a people trapped in the past as the world around them leaves them behind with only a few able to take advantage of the economic changes. The very premise of the movie is based on two protagonists in search of loved ones from their pasts. As described by Ping Zhu in her article, Destruction, Moral Nihilism and the Poetics of Debris in Jia Zhangke’s ‘Still Life’, “No matter how grand the official narrative of the Three Gorges project is, it is only felt by these marginalized individuals as an irresistible force of destruction.” (Zhu (2011))
Again, the prostitution business is unapologetically exhibited, a construction worker is killed due to the utter lack of any safety regulations, and the demolition workers present throughout the movie work without making any progress, their sledgehammers having no effect on the buildings they slam against, conveying an utter sense of futile immobility and stillness.
Altogether, Jia Zhangke’s cinematographic style of authentic realism along with the narratives he chooses to depict in his films capture the experiences of those marginalized during China’s absurdly rapid globalization and growth. In doing so, Jia Zhangke not only tells the story of the voiceless, but accuses China’s corrupted officials of being specifically accountable for the unsympathetic exploitation and reckless mistreatment of the poor rampant in Chinese society at the time.
Correlation with Other Chinese Performances
Over the course of the past semester, our class has studied and analyzed numerous Chinese performances that, like Jia Zhangke’s movies, have also acted as gauges for China’s economic, social, and political climates including Zhang Yimou’s Opening Ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the works of musicians Cui Jian and Jay Chou, as well as the play Rhinoceros in Love directed by Meng Jinghui. Even though these performances differ drastically in style and medium, they nonetheless, share the same theme of reflecting China’s realities and offering social commentary on the poor conditions of the state.
One of the very first performances we watched closely, the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony directed by Zhang Yimou, provided an in-depth look into Chinese culture. Not only was the ceremony a fantastic demonstration and show of China’s strengths as a modern nation, but it also acted as an international exchange during which China was able to present many of its key cultural beliefs and philosophies. Publicly broadcasted throughout the world, the opening ceremony aimed to change the negative assumptions that the West had of China at the time. Throughout the hour-and-a-half long performance, themes of harmony, political strength, and economic prosperity were repeatedly reintroduced in order to convey an overall message of power. Of course, many aspects of the show were greatly exaggerated and served as political propaganda, but, just as Jia Zhangke’s films showed the world the underground version of China, Zhang Yimou’s opening ceremony also displayed important cultural elements the West had not previously known about.
Thereafter, our class also studied two of China’s most famous stars, Cui Jian and Jay Chou. One of the first Chinese musicians to introduce rock music to the country, Cui Jian became known for his rebellious style, which appealed to the unhappy youths of his time. One song in particular, I Have Nothing, is particularly relevant to Jia Zhangke’s movies as it specifically calls out the corruption of the nation that left the vast majority of the population with even fewer options than before China’s rapid globalization, a key idea that Jai Zhangke expresses throughout his works. More recently, Jay Chou has similarly expressed his own opinions about the social struggles of China. Though his style is much less aggressive than that of Cui Jian nor does he take a politically strong stance, Jay Chou has absolutely called attention to a number of social issues in his songs. In fact, Jay Chou’s Cowboy On the Run arguably mocks China’s obsession with Western capitalistic culture.
Lastly, Meng Jinghui’s Rhinoceros in Love struck me as especially comparable to Jia Zhangke’s movies. Much like A Touch of Sin, Rhinoceros in Love very plainly critiques globalization and hollow pursuits of materialistic desires. However, Meng Jinghui speaks both to traditionalist audiences as well as more contemporary crowds through multi-coded language while Jia Zhangke focused specifically on one audience, typically relying on non-professional actors and improvised lines to better establish a sense of explicit authenticity in his works. Nevertheless, I would argue that the play hardly remains purely objective in conveying themes of economic growth and capitalism.
Ultimately, this course has demonstrated that performances serve as much more than just sources of entertainment for audiences to enjoy. Filled with allusions to traditional elements, social commentary, and often political interpretations, Chinese performances have played a powerful role in re-presenting what is truly “Chinese” as well as capturing the cultural shifts and growing pains that result from inevitable socio-economic changes.
Bai, Siying, “Recent Developments in the Chinese Film Censorship System” (2013). Research Papers. Paper 377. http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/gs_rp/377
Cai, S. (2015). Jia Zhangke and His A Touch of Sin. Film International, 13(2), 67-78. doi:10.1386/fiin.13.2.67_1
Fifth Generation /film directors. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2016, from http://contemporary_chinese_culture.academic.ru/254/Fifth_Generation__film_directors
Sixth Generation (film directors). (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2016, from http://contemporary_chinese_culture.academic.ru/710/Sixth_Generation_(film_directors)
Shih, A. (2006). Jia Zhangke: life and times beyond The World. CineAction, (68), 53+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA141588750&v=2.1&u=lom_umichanna&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=8a07ef6e1c246ee138adde6a326877cd
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). Hundred Flowers Campaign. Retrieved April 26, 2016, from http://www.britannica.com/event/Hundred-Flowers-Campaign
Zhu, P. (2011). Destruction, Moral Nihilism and the Poetics of Debris in Jia Zhangke’s Still Life. Visual Anthropology, 24(4), 318-328. doi:10.1080/08949468.2011.583566
Zhu, P. (2013). The sincere gaze: Art and realism in jia zhangke’s films. Chinese Literature Today, 3(1), 88-94,5. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.umich.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1535661344?accountid=14667