Life or Something like It

Ed Halter on Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke, Still Life, 2006, still from a color film in HD, 111 minutes. Shen Hong (Zhao Tao).

GRITTY BUT ELEGANT CHRONICLES of a rapidly transforming society, Jia Zhangke’s films depict street-level life in contemporary China with a hyperreal, science-fictional gloss. The scripted characters of The World (2004) are performers and staff at an actual Bejing theme park filled with miniature replicas of international tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids, and Lower Manhattan. In a dystopian twist worthy of Baudrillard, the sprawling attraction displays the tagline SEE THE WORLD WITHOUT EVER LEAVING BEIJING. Still Life (2006) takes place in a city being destroyed and rebuilt to make way for the colossal Three Gorges Dam, and its interconnected story lines play out against an unsettling combination of verdant landscape and industrial rubble. Throughout Jia’s eight features and numerous shorts, his characters are plugged into global pop music, fashion, and markets. But even as he shows how the Imperial and Maoist eras have become two-dimensional images, flattened by the speed of change, Jia underscores the fact that these same characters’ lives remain determined by forces beyond their control. As the sounds of Chinese opera play at a dinner party, the thirty-somethings in his short narrative Cry Me a River (2008) reminisce about their 1990s college days after discussing stock tips, then exchange skin-care advice. Though he roots his films in an everyday strangeness, Jia doesn’t shy from his own postmodern flourishes. Shot in a declining factory town, his downbeat Unknown Pleasures (2002) includes a remarkable sequence, set in a diner, that lurches without warning into a full-on Pulp Fiction pastiche, complete with jump-cut to disco (an inspired and pointed knockoff, considering how many bits from Chinese films Tarantino himself has cribbed). Just as suddenly, one of the buildings in Still Life launches skyward, like a rocket.

The leading figure of China’s Sixth Generation—directors who came of age in the ’90s, producing low-budget films frequently outside the rules of state censorship—Jia works in a complex blend of fact and fiction. His narrative features use contemporary locations and story lines based on true events, while his documentaries employ a fluidly controlled camerawork that hermetically seals them into a tight choreography. The subsequent ontological tangles can become dizzyingly baroque. For 24 City (2008), a fictional tale based on the true-life transformation of a munitions factory into luxury apartments, Jia based his script on interviews with more than one hundred residents, then shot his film with both actors and nonactors, staging documentary-style monologues on the factory floor prior to its demolition. One of the factory workers is nicknamed Little Flower, after a 1979 movie starring Joan Chen, because of her resemblance to the international star; the character is played by Chen herself, disconcertingly cast as her own double. Still Life has its own uncanny twin, too, East (2006), a documentary about artist Liu Xiaodong shot in the same location at the same time. Liu is shown early on manipulating a group of men into casual poses as painting models, not unlike similar tableaux of shirtless workers in Still Life, suggesting parallels to Jia’s own meticulous remaking of real-world experience.

“Jia Zhangke: A Retrospective” runs March 5–20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details, click here.