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.
Expressing an iconoclastic worldview is no easy matter in the Middle Kingdom. After working for years as an underground filmmaker, smuggling his films out of China to screen at festivals, Jia now acquiesces to a government-mandated script-approval and censorship process. "Filmmakers like Jia have grown quite savvy about how to walk the thin line between artistic freedom and self-censorship [...] yet still have their work produced and distributed," says Michael Berry, a professor of Chinese cultural studies at UC-Santa Barbara. While some intellectuals and filmmakers in China have criticized Jia for submitting to government regulations, Berry believes that Jia remains "the single most important" Chinese filmmaker of his generation, as well as an incisive social critic.
"I don't start from a political standpoint," Jia told the New York Times in 2008. "But if you make a film about China right now, you have to talk about the politics and the changes that are affecting people." In his latest feature, 24 City (2008), Jia merges elements of fiction and documentary to tell the story of a factory in Chengdu that was closed to make way for a luxury apartment complex. In Useless (2007), a visually stunning documentary about the fashion industry, Jia contrasts a Chinese designer's artisanal craft with the oppressive conditions in the clothing factories of Guangdong. While these films are too subtle to hold Jia to any kind of political litmus test, they are, as Berry puts it, "not simply chronicles, but commentaries, critical engagements with the shifting world around him."
But can Jia's work stand up to a more formidable test—the attention span of the American moviegoer? With their long takes, long shots and minimal dialogue, his films may be challenging to audiences weaned on the frenzied cutting and butt-kicking heroes of Hollywood-style thrillers. Yet Jia's films "will resonate and spark identification and compassion" among those seeking more than just escapism, says Jytte Jensen, the curator of MOMA's Department of Film.
Though Jia's work is becoming as synonymous with China as Scorsese's is with the United States, his films illuminate global conditions and trends that impact us all. With the US still smarting from the recent economic meltdown, Jia's portraits of drifting migrants, laid off factory hands and disillusioned teenagers may hold particular resonance for Stateside viewers. Whether you're in Buffalo or Beijing, Detroit or Dalian, the films of Jia Zhangke offer a breathtaking panorama of a world in flux.