I Shall Not Be Moved

Nick Pinkerton on Jia Zhangke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020)

Jia Zangke, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 112 minutes.

SPEAKING ON THE CLIMAX of his 1984 period piece Shanghai Blues, which ends on a Hong Kong–bound train from Shanghai, the Saigon-born, Hong Kong–based filmmaker Tsui Hark offered that the Chinese “are caught in something like a migrating curse, moving from one place to another.”

On the face of it, Tsui’s cinema, with its staccato editing and pop sensibility, might seem to have little to do with that of Jia Zhangke, who has been the most prominent Mainland Chinese filmmaker on the festival circuit since his first feature, Pickpocket, played the Berlin International Film Festival in 1998—the title of that film belies Jia’s debt to the ascetic aesthetics of Robert Bresson, while the rambunctious Tsui has more often been compared to Steven Spielberg. At one point in Jia’s latest, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, the author Jia Pingwa writes a calligraphic slogan that might double as a description of the director’s gelid gaze: “Cast a cold eye on the world.” But like Tsui, Jia is a particularly historically minded Chinese filmmaker, and like Tsui, Jia in his films returns time and again to exploring that “migrating curse,” and how it affects the lives of Chinese people.

The critic Stephen Teo has described Tsui’s filmmaking as “nationalism on speed”; Jia’s is closer to regionalism on downers. Throughout his career, Jia’s hometown of Fenyang and his native Shanxi Province have remained the True Norths by which he orients himself, scene of his first fiction feature and of his last, 2018’s Ash is Purest White. Swimming Out belongs to another facet of Jia’s filmmaking, his nonfiction work: an increasingly important part of his practice in the years leading up to and immediately following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, though this is his first work in that line since 2010’s I Wish I Knew.

Like that film, which offers a history of the city of Shanghai through the oral testimony of its subjects, Swimming Out is a film of reminiscence, its principal characters prominent figures in contemporary Chinese literature—Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong—as well as Ma Feng, who died in 2004, and is therefore remembered rather than seen and heard remembering.

Jia has connected his new documentary to his 2006 Dong, about the painter Liu Xiaodong, and his 2007 Useless, about the fashion designer Ma Ke, which now with Swimming Out form a loose trilogy about the lives of artists in China. The film is broken into chapters as to emphasize its literary aspect, eighteen in all, their titles reflecting what might be called “universal themes”: “Love,” “Eating,” “Mother,” “Father,” and so on. Its structure follows a rough chronology, introducing the authors in order of birthdate. We begin with Ma, conjured up in the memories of his daughter and those of elderly residents of Jiajiazhuang, or Jia Family Village, near Fenyang, where the author once resided, and where Jia shot part of his epoch-spanning Platform (2000). That 1979-set clip, which shows villagers milling about before a Cultural Revolution–era mural depicting the plan for Jiajiazhuang, appears again in Swimming Out, contrasted with contemporary footage of tourists taking selfies at the Village History Museum.

Jia Zangke, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 112 minutes. Jia Pingwa.

From here, Jia passes the baton between his living subjects. Jia Pingwa, born in 1952, describes the uphill struggle for rehabilitation he faced following his father’s branding as a “counter-revolutionary” element during the Cultural Revolution due to his name having appeared on a list of expected attendees at a meeting held by General Hu Zongnan, a leader of the Kuomintang enemy during the Chinese Civil War. Yu, a jocular raconteur born in 1960, recounts hustling his way out of a dead-end state-assigned job as a dentist through tirelessly writing and posting stories. Liang, born in 1973, recalls with emotion the deprivations of her childhood as one of six daughters in a poor family—hardships evidently not experienced by her 16-year-old Beijinger son, Yiliang, never seen without his snazzy Sony headphones.

The gulf between the past that is described by Swimming Out’s subjects and the present from which they describe it is one of the running themes of Jia’s film: downtown boutiques pumping with shopgirls dancing to plastic pop, NBA games watched on iPhones, and so forth. Another is the more than geographical distance between China’s inland provinces and its coastal metropolises: between the cities that have sprouted new skylines during the country’s stretch of twenty-first-century economic growth and the villages that have seen little of that prosperity. Each of the film’s subjects is, like Jia, a devoted regionalist, operating away from the centers of government and culture, with Ma positioned as a touchstone for these later writers—after unsatisfactory attempts to write about life in Beijing, Ma returned to his native Shanxi and experienced an artistic breakthrough, even as he still struggled to comprehend the local dialect.

Ma’s return to his roots contributed to the development of the so-called shanyaodan genre of literature about life in the rural north, and each of Jia’s subjects describes their relationships with their hometowns and their impact on their work. Jia Pingwa marks his return to his native Shangluo in the northwest in the early ’80s as having helped to focus his gaze on rural subjects; for Liang, a similar rebirth was experienced with an extended sojourn in her home village of Liangzhuang in landlocked Henan Province in 2007, when her son was three. Yu is something of an outlier here, having begun his career in the provinces, managing through his indefatigable efforts to publish in Beijing while still living in Haiyan County, Zhejiang Province. The idea of home as offering a fixed perspective is articulated by Jia Pingwa: “From the hometown I live in, I’m looking at China, looking at the whole world.”

Jia Zangke, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 112 minutes. Yu Hua.

Jia Pingwa, Yu, and Liang are first seen en route to the first Lyuliang Literature Festival, held in Jiajiazhuang in May 2019, and organized by Jia—a fact averred to in the film by Yu, though no context for any of what we see is offered aside from the on-screen testimonials. Presumably, most Western viewers will not be familiar with the subjects of Swimming Out—Yu may be best known for his New York Times column—though I’m not sure if most Chinese viewers would be either. The standing of literature in the daily life of the People’s Republic of China is no higher than it is in the rest of the world today, and perhaps even more marginal; as Jia notes in a recent interview, his country has “a population of 1.4 billion, but any serious novel which sells 30,000 copies is considered a best seller.” (His subjects, at least, have done rather better—Liang’s 2010 China in One Village, for example, sold a quarter-million copies.)

Taken as an advertisement for the work of the authors, represented in brief readings shot with a certain grandiloquent flourish, Swimming Out is not particularly convincing, though this may reflect the basic difficulty of translating literature into film rather than any inherent shortcomings in their prose. It is possible that a line like Yu’s “Remembering the past or longing for your native place are, in reality, ways of reaching for reassurance,” encountered on the page and in proper context, might be striking or even moving. But in the film’s staged readings, accompanied by swellings of Shostakovich, this and other excerpts take on a platitudinous quality, skirting dangerously close to paeans to “the power of the written word.” The cold eye gets a little misty here, and the film’s focus blurs.

The personalities themselves come across lucidly, their stories together narrating some eighty years of Chinese history, taking in the initial surge of post-revolutionary zeal in the cooperative reclamation work that made once-barren Jiajiazhuang into fertile farm country, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the dizzying growth that followed Deng Xiaoping’s market-economy reforms, and the evacuation of the countryside as rural migrants pressed into the cities looking for work. Their interviews, shot with slow-gliding camerawork by cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, unfold against a shifting field of backdrops: Ma’s daughter is seen sitting next to a statue of her father, Jia Pingwa on the stage of a concert hall where he’s earlier filmed watching Shanxi opera at the Xi’an Yisu Theatre—the very activity the author recalls that his father engaged in, at the very same location, instead of attending Hu’s meeting, though he was punished for it all the same.

Jia Zangke, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 112 minutes.

Jia Pingwa’s story of his father’s opting out of a political meeting for the theatre suggests art as a refuge from politics, though the filmmaker who shares his surname is well aware that opting out is never so simple, and that even the coldest artist’s eye must reflect a landscape irrevocably shaped by politics. In an essay titled “History and Several of My Moments,” Liang wrote: “For a Chinese, sorrows and joys are never a natural part of life, but rather are forced changes due to changes in politics or systems.” Tsui echoes this point in describing his “curse,” noting that the Chinese “don’t see this as very special, but all this migration is usually for political reasons.”

Tsui, who was describing his fellow Hong Kongers’ anxiety at the coming Handover, has made his peace with the new management, cranking out the occasional patriotic military epic between Detective Dee sequels. Jia Zhangke’s path has been somewhat trickier, an ongoing delicate dance with state censors; when, a little more than a year after the first Lyuliang Literature Festival, he announced his abrupt departure from the Pingyao Film Festival, another event he’d helped to found in Shanxi, rumors of possible clashes with local government immediately followed. In making films about the dilemmas faced by artists working in China, Jia inevitably reflects on his own practice, and when Yu recalls an editor’s insistence on his writing a happy ending to one of his stories because “in a socialist country like ours such things cannot happen,” one may recall the censoring of Jia’s A Touch of Sin (2013), a grim film concerned with depicting things that couldn’t happen in China, even though they did.

Jia Zangke, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, 2020, DCP, color, sound, 112 minutes. Liang Hong.

In fact, Jia’s images of rural China and its people access a depth of tenderness far beyond the slick back-to-basics wish-fulfillment ASMR lifestyle porn of Sichuan YouTuber Li Ziqi, beloved of the Party in a way that Jia will never be—to love China but question its government is to suggest that the two aren’t synonymous, something that both the CPC and its most vociferous critics alike insist oughtn’t be done. Li’s massive popularity has been attributed to a nostalgia for traditional culture among newly affluent urban Chinese for, to borrow from Dolly Parton, the good old days when times were bad.

Swimming Out tempts such sentimentality but succumbs to its undertow pull only rarely. While Jia unmistakably feels a kinship with his subjects and their stubborn, recalcitrant resistance to centralization through their acts of loyalty to their hometown, he also registers the notes of ambivalence each expresses in describing their attachment to their birthplaces: Consider Liang’s description of vicious village gossip around her impoverished family; Jia Pingwa’s written citation of the saying “The place you’re born is the place that half-buries you…”; or the anecdote from Yu that concludes the film and provides its title in which, looking out over the Yellow Sea, the author recalls a youthful dream of swimming away from Haiyan.

This coda is preceded by another image of water, Liang and her son on the banks of what is presumably the Yellow River. The boy discusses the rerouting of the river in the course of his mother’s life, recalling the man-made alterations of the Three Gorges Dam of Jia’s Still Life (2006), and cites a phrase from Wu Jingzi’s Qing dynasty novel The Scholars—“Thirty years on the east side of the river and thirty years on the west side of the river”—which has been adopted as a common proverbial expression referring to the permanence of nothing but change. The family is back in Beijing now, and he seems to suspect he’s missed something growing up in the city, for among the many things that we learn from our hometown is the desire to escape.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is screening virtually and in person at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.