Museum of Modern Art
You could call it the Cultural Revolution: a Chinese filmmaker is changing the landscape of international cinema, producing what Martin Scorsese calls "the finest, toughest, most vitally alive work in modern moviemaking." You could also call it the Quiet Revolution: if you don't follow movie matters with Scorsese's near-religious zeal, you've probably never heard of this cinematic powerhouse, let alone seen any of his films. The passionate praise invites a reasonable retort: who on earth is Jia Zhangke?
There's never been a better time to find out. Jia's films are increasingly available on DVD. And over the next two weeks New York's Museum of Modern Art is screening the first complete U.S. retrospective of his work. This is a remarkable honor for a filmmaker barely 40 years of age. It's also the first time in more than 20 years that MOMA has held such an event for a mainland Chinese filmmaker. Whether you love movies, or merely seek a better understanding of the world's next superpower, Jia Zhangke is a name you need to know.
Jia's first films were drawn from his youth in rough-and-tumble Shanxi, a province in China's northern coal belt. In Xiao Wu (1997), his debut feature, Jia observes a pickpocket's failure to adapt to the country's liberalizing economy. The film is a penetrating portrait of a man whose identity, like that of his country, is constantly under revision. In Platform (2000), the film that established Jia's international reputation, he follows a state-sponsored theatre troupe through the immense economic and cultural reforms of the 1980s, tracking their eventual privatization and rebranding as a rock 'n' roll and break dancing outfit.
In one memorable scene, troupe member Cui Mingliang visits his farmer father in the fields outside their home town. The old man gestures furiously at his son's bell bottoms. "How are you going to do any lifting in that?", he growls. "I'm an art worker," Cui responds. "I don't do manual labor!" In Jia's skillful hands, a pair of Levis tells you all you need to know about the economic reforms of Deng Shaopeng.
While Jia is not the only filmmaker of his generation to examine China's recent social upheavals, he stands apart for his acute insight into the massive, almost unfathomable global trends that shape his characters' daily existence. In Unknown Pleasures (2002), Jia weaves the awarding of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing into the film's rich portrait of restless, disillusioned youth. He pans slowly across the dust-strewn square where his protagonists have gathered to celebrate, capturing the painful contrast between their impoverished surroundings and the image China seeks to project on the international stage.
In The World (2004), Jia crafts an inventive portrait of the workers in a Beijing theme park. The international tourists and replicas of famous landmarks that fill the grounds place his characters' lack of social mobility in stark relief. They can hop on a tram from the Taj Mahal to the Eiffel Tower, but they can't afford the bus trip back to their rural hometowns for Chinese New Year.
If Jia's films reveal a side of China that American audiences have never seen before, it's partly because they look and feel like nothing else in contemporary movies. In The World, lush sequences of flash animation amplify the strangeness and artifice of the Beijing World Park. In the Venice Film Festival-winning Still Life (2006), Jia unites a documentary-style aesthetic with sci-fi special effects to tell the story of a man searching for his wife at the iconic Three Gorges Dam. His luminous images of rubble-strewn wastelands and exploding buildings bring to life the radical, almost supernatural transformation of a landscape that, as one character puts it, "took two thousand years to build and only two to tear down." With their mixture of brutal realism and playful surrealism, Jia's films capture "sounds and sights that are otherwise invisible" at the movies, says Yale film scholar Dudley Andrew.