Film Comment reports: the mastery of Jia Zhangke
A leading figure in China’s contemporary independent cinema, Jia Zhangke returns to the New York Film Festival with two powerful new works. Fresh from its premiere at this year’s Cannes, 24 City is a genre hybrid of fiction and documentary that chronicles the conversion of a factory in Chengdu into a luxury apartment complex. With a playfulness offsetting the film’s often painful subject matter, Jia combines interviews of three generations of factory workers with monologues from instantly recognizable actors, including Joan Chen and Jia regular Zhao Tao. The stories they share range from heart-wrenching tales of family separation to recollections of youthful romance, and the result is both Jia’s most emotionally direct film and his most self-consciously aestheticized. His visual style—once dominated by long shots and long takes—undergoes a shift in this film, as he and master cinematographer Yu Lik-wai frame their subjects in intimate close-ups and punctuate scenes with poetic imagery. Underlying this bold genre experimentation is Jia’s continued commitment to capturing Chinese history in transition, and his interest in examining the blurred line between realism and artificiality hidden in all historical narratives.
The second Jia film in the festival, Cry Me a River has been programmed with Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. This short uses its setting and theme of missed romantic connections to pay homage to Fei Mu’s 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town—often regarded as the greatest Chinese film of all time. Reuniting ten years after college graduation, a group of ex-lovers confide in each other the regrets and disappointments of early adulthood, as the river that runs through their town provides them with a constant reminder of the past’s irretrievability. In his first straightforward love story, Jia unites his two main muses, Zhao Tao and Wang Hongwei, with the stars of Lou Ye’s controversial 2006 film Summer Palace. Through a series of subtle allusions, Jia suggests that he envisions himself in communion not only with the legends of Chinese cinema’s past, but also with his compatriots in the present.