Thursday, February 18, 2010

Modern Maestros: Zhang Ke Jia

Robert here, continuing my series on great contemporary directors. I thought I'd stay international this week, since The Olympics have us all focused on the globe.  China has been producing some of the finest films lately, so here for your reading enjoyment is one of their most important yet unsung directors.

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
Disasters: none
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.

Or any of Zhang Ke Jia's films really.  He's among the most important voices in Eastern cinema today.  I've been at this long enough that you guys already know what style I'm partial to, and though I can dress it up with whatever purple words I want (languorous, patient, minimalist) it's a fact that Zhang Ke Jia's films, like many others I've promoted are slow and subtle and require any viewer to be in a proper state of mind for such.  But the rewards are plentiful.  Cinema isn't a substitute for a history lesson or a civics lesson but as an exploration of the humanity of our times Zhang's films do quite nicely (and especially about a part of the world that we in America still know too little about).  IMDb lists Zhang's next project as 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.


Amir said...

i have't started reading the article yet, but just as i saw his name, my mind drifted to another great chinese director, ang lee.
did you cover him in these series yet? or if not, are you intending to? he would have been perfect for the series when it was called great directors of the decade (with brokeback and crouching tiger and lust caution... wow!)
if you have covered him, my bad!
i should check the archive.

Agustin said...

I've only seen Pickpocket but, for just that film I really admire him..
This neo-neorealism is more real than ever.. It sounds stupid, but the thing is.. I feel that with this film I got to finally know China, its people.. You have to see it, I'm not very good with words..

Glenn Dunks said...

Still Life is amazing and a masterpiece and classic and fantastic and all sorts of other superlatives. What a movie! And you're so right about everything you wrote about it. That scene with the rocket is so wonderfully obscure and the cinematography of that movie is almost beyond peer for the decade.

The only other Jia film I have seen is Useless. I saw that a film festival (just like Still Life) and for some reason as the film was playing the movie's soundtrack wasn't playing but, in fact, the music score of Rolf de Heer's The Tracker was. Very strange. There's nothing else interesting to say about that movie unfortunately. I did nearly fall asleep though! :S

rebecka said...

He's one of my favourite directors (up there with Hou Hsia-hsien and Wong Kar-wai)! I remember watching Still Life and not being able to get it out of my head for weeks.
Why is he not a bigger name outside of China?

Anyway, thank you for writing this! Made my morning ^^

Nate Tyson said...

Unknown Pleasures is such a great film.

Burning Reels said...

Other than it's visuals, I do confess to being a little underwhelmed by Still Life but I agree about the 'certain mood' point, I wasn't in that space...

alsolikelife said...

Great post, except for that his family name is Jia, not Zhang. His given name is Zhangke (or Zhang-ke, I know it's confusing).

Also you should mention the first ever full North American retrospective of Jia's films, starting at New York's MoMA in just a couple of weeks! Here's the lowdown: