Artificial Eye have been releasing a few box sets in the latter part of this year that focus on the work of critically-acclaimed art-house directors. Andy gave his thoughts on a recent Alexandr Sokurov Collection and you can expect a Dardennes Brothers Collection write-up from me in the next few weeks. The first I got my hands on though was this collection of three of Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke’s early films – Pickpocket, Platform and Unknown Pleasures. I’d only seen two of his films before, Pickpocket and 24 City. I can remember quite liking the former (and still do – see below) but didn’t think much to 24 City, finding it easily the most tedious two hours I spent in Cannes 2008. I’d heard great things about Platform though and I was willing to give the director another try. Here’s how the collection fared in my eyes:

Pickpocket (a.k.a. Xiao Wu)

Director: Zhang Ke Jia
Screenplay: Zhang Ke Jia
Starring: Hongwei Wang, Hao Hongjian, Zuo Baitao
Running Time: 105 min
Year: 1998
Country: China, Hong Kong
BBFC Certificate: 15

The late 80’s saw a boom in Western appreciated art-house films from China. The group of directors that brought forth this wave of festival favourites were known as the ‘fifth generation’, the first to graduate after the cultural revolution, and included greats such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Coming largely from the Beijing Film Academy, the directors produced films that avoided the social-realism that came before, instead using unconventional ways of making political statements. They made distinctly cinematic films which often used bold colours and carefully composed long takes. Films such as Farewell My Concubine and Raise the Red Lantern wowed audiences around the world with their beauty and political undertones.

The students that came out of Beijing a few years later though wanted their own voice. China’s ‘sixth generation’ of filmmakers stripped things right back, making low budget rough and raw films (largely due to funding cuts) that looked at more contemporary issues and urban decay. Jia Zhang-Ke was one of the key directors in this movement and Pickpocket (a.k.a. Xiao Wu) was his first ‘proper’ feature (he’d made the 1-hour Xiaoshan huijia student production previously). It sets the tone for the rest of the films in the set, which form a sort of trilogy examining various aspects of the changes China had undertaken over 30 years prior to the turn of the century. Pickpocket is set in a small provincial town in 1997 around the time of the handover of Hong Kong back to China. It follows Xiao Wu, a pickpocket that is being left behind as China moves towards more capitalist ideals. His friends that were once pickpockets like him are all getting married or setting up legitimate businesses. At first stubborn to make any changes to his life, Wu tries to modernise and falls for a call girl Mei Mei (Hao Hongjian), who starts to turn his life around, but his past comes back to haunt him.

Jia’s political motivations are clear from the offset as we cut from Wu stealing someone’s wallet to a picture of Chairman Mao hanging in a bus window. There’s a lot of clear symbolism throughout but it’s generally well handled. What’s more effective though is the human side of matters and this is true to all three of the films in the collection. By avoiding flashy cinematic techniques, keeping plot minimal and the non-professional performances natural, the characters (largely Wu of course) and their actions are forced front and centre.

Unfortunately, as much as I love and admire this style of stripping cinema down to its bare essentials, Pickpocket and the other films in this collection do suffer from being too meandering and minimalist. The messages are strong in this, the central relationship is warm and believable and there is much power in places, but I couldn’t help feeling that it all could have been a bit tighter and it’s not tremendously engaging to watch. Still, it’s a decent example of the revolution that the ‘sixth generation’ brought to world cinema.

Platform (a.k.a. Zhantai)

Director: Zhang Ke Jia
Screenplay: Zhang Ke Jia
Starring: Hongwei Wang, Tao Zhao, Jing Dong Liang
Running Time: 154 min
Year: 2000
Country: China, Hong Kong, Japan, France
BBFC Certificate: 12

Platform (a.k.a. Zhantai) has a much wider scope than Pickpocket. Spanning a decade between 1979 to 1989, it follows a group of teenagers growing into adults whilst China undergoes its biggest cultural changes with restrictions slackened, allowing popular culture from around the world to leak through. Our group are part of a ‘cultural team’ that travel around the country, performing in small towns and rural locations. The changes in fashions and ideals play a part in how the young adults come together and drift apart.

Probably Jia’s most critically-acclaimed film, I was very keen to watch Platform. It’s easy to see why it is so respected too. With his second major release, Jia truly showed what the ‘sixth generation’s style was capable of. The low-tech equipment is still in use and the rough naturalism in place, but Jia shows us that true beauty can still come from such basic materials. Shooting in very long takes with the odd pan here and there in often derelict and bare locations, Jia’s composition and mis-en-scene is all that is required to create some quietly stunning sequences. It’s hard to explain why it’s all so effective, but anyone that appreciates photography or cinematography will have much to enjoy.

I also found the infiltration of other cultures to these closed off communities fascinating to watch. The film is a deeply personal work, set around where Jia himself grew-up and at a similar time. He even dedicates the film to his father. Because of this, the naturalism and warmth shines through even more than before.

However, once again I found myself torn by the style of the film. Yes the artistry is deeply effective at times and generally a more raw approach is what I like in a film, but it’s very difficult to stay hooked to such a slow moving and sparse series of events. Running at two and a half hours, the pacing issue is even more apparent here. It’s a shame because I was loving the film at the hour and a half mark, but it kind of lost me after that. This is also because the passing of time and changing situations of characters wasn’t always made clear so I kept getting confused as to what exactly was going on.

I was so frustrated coming out of watching this. On one hand I found much to admire and can easily lavish praise on aspects of its production, but on the other I almost totally disengaged with it in the final third, making for a disappointing end result.

Unknown Pleasures (a.k.a. Ren xiao yao)

Director: Zhang Ke Jia
Screenplay: Zhang Ke Jia
Starring: Wei Wei Zhao, Qiong Wu and Tao Zhao
Running Time: 113 min
Year: 2002
Country: China, Japan, South Korea, France
BBFC Certificate: 12

Unknown Pleasures, set in 2001, looks at the generation facing the new ‘birth control’ movement in China. The central characters are unemployed slackers that have become detached from the real world. With no prospects or dreams, they simply drift through life experiencing enjoyment through whatever mindless entertainment they can get their hands on.

Again Jia’s message and motivation is clear. The vapidity of Western-influenced mass consumer entertainment drives everything, with the sound of TV’s and karaoke bars bombarding the soundtrack – keeping the naturalistic style by incorporating these diegetically (an approach used in the previous films too). The characters act above their standing too, with a woman making the most of her ‘fame’ as the poster girl for a beer company despite being little more than a prostitute for her tyrannical boss. Another rides around on a beaten up, weedy motorbike like he’s James Dean, but can barely get it up the slightest of hills.

Jia’s slow style, leaving the camera rolling in long takes, is a perfect fit for the subject matter. He effectively captures the intended sense of worthlessness of his characters that have everything they think they want, but don’t know what to do with themselves. They don’t seem to exist except for when they experience physical violence or are forced to struggle to achieve anything. These moments are highlighted through a motif of repetition (in one scene, a character is slapped across the face relentlessly for a couple of minutes).

But again, the film is just too much of a slog to truly recommend. It’s easy to admire in chunks, but the points and statements are clear quite early on and I don’t think these develop enough throughout the film to justify the two hour running time. So Unknown Pleasures, like the other films in this set, is another interesting and artfully composed disappointment.

The Jia Zhang-Ke Collection is out now on DVD, released by Artificial Eye. It’s hard to comment on the picture and sound quality as these early films from Jia were shot on DV, utilising largely natural light and location sound, so they’re never going to look and sound as technically polished as most releases. I think Artificial Eye have done as good a job as they can though, there are no noticeable issues.

Extras are thin on the ground though. You get a lot of text-based pieces, largely repeated biographies, but Platform comes with a text interview and opening statement from the director which both add some necessary background to the film. Unknown Pleasures has the only notable video extra in the form of an interview with Jia. This is fairly short and straightforwardly put together, but quite illuminating, giving clear thoughts on his filmmaking processes and influences.

About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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