Maestro: Zhang Ke Jia
Known For: Films about Chinese life, people and culture.
Influences: Chen Kaige, all those Iranian guys from the 90's. Rossellini.
Masterpieces: Still Life
Better than you remember: It's uncommon for people to remember Zhang's films with anything but fondness.
Box Office: Still Life has been his most successful in the States with a whopping 68 thousand.
Favorite Actor: Actress Tao Zhao has appeared in 5 of Zhang's feature films (and is slated for his next)
Of all the important Chinese directors working today I sense that Zhang Ke Jia has unfortunately achieved the least exposure (equally I apologize if I'm featuring too many esoteric directors here, next week I promise a big big name). Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai have gotten big releases in the west. Hou Hsiao-Hsien has been around long enough to have name recognition. Heck I was even surprised at how many Tsai Ming-laing fans turned up when I wrote about him last month. But if you're not familiar with the work of Zhang Ke Jia, you owe it to yourself to be. At this point it shouldn't be surprising to learn that Zhang's favorite topic, like most of his Chinese contemporaries is the rapid evolution of his country's culture, industry, and identity. But just because many directors are tackling the same topic, doesn't mean they're doing the same thing. Zhang isn't as interested in human alienation (as say, Tsai Ming-liang was) as much as he's intrigued by the individual's relation to the state and the culture that develops as a result. Zhang, who originally started in underground film but lately has been granted state approval, has found a way to be both critical of the west and China without seeming like an activist either way. I suppose sincerity helps. A scene in The World featuring an overblown theme park inhabited with world monuments frowns upon globalization in China. But the repeated images of ruins and destruction caused by the Three Gorges Dam in Still Life is clearly a critique of the government's upending of millions of lives.
That film, Still Life is also a good example of what makes Zhang's directorial style so unexpected and exciting. Seemingly a typical piece of minimalism or neorealism (or neo-neorealism) suddenly we're treated to a scene where a monument, sitting comfortably in the background, springs rocket boosters and takes off into space. The point? Perhaps the future is closer than you think (although Zhang claims he thought the monument was ugly and simply wanted to remove it from the shot). Zhang's latest film to hit the west, 24 City also implores a unique stylistic device. It's a series of actual interviews inter-cut with fictional interviews making a hybrid-documentary about an airplane factory that's now a massive apartment building (and again suggesting that the modern evolution of Chinese life is highly complex). Zhang's older films are a bit more traditional stylistically, though no worse for wear. As a younger man he naturally found himself interested in the reaction of China's youth to the cultural revolution of Mao and the cultural infiltration of America. Anyone interested in the past of China shouldn't miss Platform. Anyone interested in the present of China shouldn't miss Unknown Pleasures.
The Age of Tatoo and suggests that it might be a change of pace for the director (martial arts anyone?). As fun as subtle longing and cultural analysis can be, sometimes a good kick in the face is just what we want.