7 Best Jia Zhangke Movies
What are the marks of a Jia Zhangke movie? There is emotional desire, rarely satisfied. Then there is the disconnection, miscommunication and alienation between people and the societies in which they live. Add to that the interference of technology in modern life and the consequences of an inescapably modernized face of China, all filmed with camera movements at frigid speed, and you’ve pretty much nailed the stylistic marks and themes of one of the greatest filmmakers of contemporary cinema.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Jia’s photos are not so easily dissected as this one. In reality, his work embodies a seemingly endless number of complex concepts that utilize literary layers deep within their narrative. It could be compared to Yasujiro Ozu, Michelangelo AntonioniWhere Hong Sang Soo to what extent his work consists of deceptively simple pieces that contain multitudes.
For international audiences, Jia Zhangke is the best-known figure of the “sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers. With nearly a dozen narrative feature films and several documentaries to his credit, the filmmaker has already created an abundant body of work. With much of his most recent work regularly competing at the Cannes Film Festival, Jia Zhangke is at the forefront of critical attention.
Don’t feel like you have to dive everything in at once. Luckily, we have compiled a list of 7 of Jia Zhangke’s most essential movies for you to enjoy at your leisure.
Xiao Wu (Pickpocket, 1997)
Jia Zhangke exploded onto the film scene with a trilogy of thematically and stylistically related films about disaffected youth adjusting to turn-of-the-century China. Xiao Wu, his first feature film, is also one of his most crucial. Under pressure from a local government seeking to suppress petty crime, pickpocket Xiao Wu (Hongwei Wang) suffers from a certain lack of income. His friends, mostly thieves, have adapted to legitimate methods of making money, but that doesn’t seem like a plausible option for the young man.
Also published under the title PickpocketXiao Wu is clearly the work of a young filmmaker – not in the sense of technical immaturity (it’s a polished, masterful film) but in its seething state of youthful angst. The film examines a world in which the protagonist has nowhere to go, nothing to do and no one to see, his frustration having no constructive outcome. It’s the story of a man whose fate seems to be written beyond his control, and all he can do is sit back and let it be. Yes Xiao Wu is the first photo of Jia you see, it’s enough to get you hooked. If not, that’s enough to remind you that the man is an unparalleled talent, with his artistic skill crystal clear from day one.
Unknown Pleasures (2002)
Unknown pleasures uses the same formula Xiao Wu and expands it to make a broader statement about an entire generation of young Chinese people. Shot in the same guerrilla style as his two previous works, the film focuses on a trio of aimless young people in Datong as they interact with each other. They watch TV, rent movies, go to nightclubs and try to plan for their uncertain future. Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) has an emotionally distant relationship with his girlfriend (Zhou Qingfeng) and does little with it beyond consuming media in a hotel room. Xiaoji (Wu Qiong) forms an obsession with the dancer Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), but the two are having trouble connecting.
But beyond that, it’s largely about the effects of Western technology and culture on young people in 21st-century China. In a lunch scene that later turns out to have great narrative significance in the third act, Xiao Ji refers to being affected by the opening scene at pulp Fiction, and the three protagonists later dance to music taken from the film. It is another tragic story of lost youth and a crucial snapshot of an entire generation of Chinese at the turn of the millennium.
Still Life (2003)
Around the time he started to branch out into the world of documentaries, Jia made Still life, a fictional feature film that uses non-fiction filmmaking techniques and concepts to create a hybrid work. It’s a two-part story about two separate people (Han Sanming and Zhao Tao) each returning to the ancient village of Fengjie to reunite with their respective husbands. What’s the movie really apropos, however, is the slow destruction of the village by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.
Jia is interested in the consequences of modernization and in Still life, it draws a direct juxtaposition between the secular village and its industrializing destroyer, the dam. The camera probes and slows down, and it often sweeps across boats, riverbeds and cityscapes to fill the frame with both natural and man-made beauty. It’s a fantastic work that puts a lot of trust in the viewer’s hands, as some cryptic title cards and an unexpected surreal event leave interpretation wide open.
I wish I knew (2010)
Given his interest in modernization, it makes sense that Jia Zhangke would make a documentary about the changing face of Shanghai, and given his unearthly talent as a filmmaker, it also makes sense that it would be totally effective. If only I knew, Jia’s fourth feature-length documentary features interviews from a wide range of subjects to create a time capsule of what Shanghai once was like. The film brilliantly fuses interviews and archival footage with freshly shot scenes where frequent collaborator Zhao Tao visits the locations in question to wander among the architecture, the people, and the present.
It is also largely about the films produced in Shanghai over the decades. Images from several films (including the fantastic Shanghai flowers, as well as days of being wild) serve their purposes, but they also serve as a gateway for viewers to discover the films. The interviewers of the film Taiwanese filmmaker of the New Wave Hou Hsaio-hsien and iconic actress Wei Wei, among many others. In its review of Shanghai cinema, it ranked among the important films about the city.
The Mountains Can Go (2015)
There really isn’t a single moment of The mountains can go it’s not entirely obvious that Jia has mastered the medium perfectly. Set over three decades, the film follows the complicated relationship between Tao (Zhao Tao) and Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) as it changes and mutates over inexorable time. With this film, Jia continues to experiment with his narrative structure, creating three separate acts each defined by a different decade (and corresponding aspect ratio).
At its heart, however, are some of the best actors in Zhao Tao’s career, a filmography already rich in touching performances. His collaborations with Jia are numerous and it’s easy to see here why he continues to use the actress in his films. She breathes a lot of life into her conflicted characters, giving them an emotional resonance that is impossible not to admire. The mountains can go is Jia Zhangke who fires on all fronts, with crisp, rich writing, beautifully framed cinematography, and an ambitious expansion that few other filmmakers would be bold enough to tackle. As far as dramas go, it’s a smash hit.
A Touch of Sin (2013)
A touch of sin is a very ambitious anthology film that features four loosely related stories set across China. Each of the four tales is based on tragic real-life news headlines, with drastic geographic and social distance between each story. It’s a departure from the typical Jia form, and its low-key, patient style is traded in favor of stylistic violence and psychological tension. Yet the themes of alienation and modernization nonetheless remain intact, and the result is a searing critique of modern Chinese society.
It’s rare for an anthology film to make each of its vignettes of equal interest, but Jia’s film pulls it off. Viewers are likely to find favorites, though each story told is crucial to the film’s strength and each is as powerful as the last. It’s easy to see why the film won Jia Zhangke Best Screenplay at Cannes: it’s a masterfully written set of stories that find greater thematic strength when compiled together, and even though each is allowed to make her own statements, they all fit together perfectly. like the pieces of a puzzle.
Ash is the Purest White (2018)
At the heart of Ash is the purest white is Jia’s most tender love story. Taking the concept of a decades-long narrative of The mountains can gothe film follows mob boss Guo Bin (Liao fan) and his girlfriend Qiao (Zhao Tao) as they navigate their relationship after the imposition of a heavy prison sentence. As the years pass, the two men inevitably drift into each other’s lives as they become victims of the changing world around them.
Ash is the purest white takes a step back from the conventions of typical crime imagery and avoids the expected clashes of violence and revenge. Rather, it focuses on the concept of self-sacrifice and the ruthless progression of time. Qiao is one of Jia’s most tireless heroines, a tireless independent woman whose decisions need no support but her own. While there are many worthy entry points for the filmmaker’s work, this film is arguably the best place to start. Ash is the purest white is Jia’s strongest film to date and a phenomenal achievement in an already laudable career.
“I hope this film is something that everyone will feel connected to.”
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