Factory Records: Jia Zhangke

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Jia's Esquire spread was designed to look like the nineteen-eighties. When I asked, "What's with all the fire?" he broke into a mischievous grin and said, "The eighties had a few fires."

Evan Osnos recently wrote about genius Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke for the New Yorker. Among the more startling insights: Jia's favorite film as a child was Breakin'.

Osnos has a video clip of some of Jia's more action-packed (I'm being ironic) moments here. Hopefully this spurs interest in Jia's work, and hopefully this has little effect on Jia's approach to his work. As with the Fifth Generation before him, Jia's work moves at the pace of everyday life, which is to say it can feel somewhat slow and uneventful and, in the context of China-watching, vaguely political. I've always felt conflicted about this tendency for challenging, non-Western film to be instantly typed as political, since it accomplishes little more than flattering our own prejudices. That said, there is certainly a way in which Fifth Generation classics like Red Sorghum or Yellow Earth or Jia's work can be seen as offering the quotidian as a protest to the official record. These are individual destinies that never merge with the narrative of progress. It's captured brilliantly in Jia's Still Life, the camera lingering as loyal citizens with axes carefully break apart their own homes, bit by bit, in anticipation of the damming of the Three Gorges River. The gestures aren't mournful. They aren't all actors; they're not playing parts. It's just the way it is.

And yet--Jia's films are also very funny in a very peculiar way, as when a mouthy young thug patterns his swag after 1980s Chow Yun-Fat characters or when a roving bootleg DVD salesman is asked about the various films of Jia Zhangke (among the requests: the fake (?) Love Will Tear Us Apart--confirming the titular Joy Division reference of Jia's 2002 Unknown Pleasures). Two characters mimic the dance scene from Pulp Fiction, but in a far dingier night club, to a tasteless trance version of a song on the Pulp soundtrack. These scenes are funny and shocking and they disrupt the occasionally depressing, Modernizing China disaster porn feel of the films. But given the references--I often wonder who the jokes are intended for.

Related: Dennis Lim, Kevin Lee and Andrew Chan on Jia.


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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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