An Unseen Modern China, Now On-Screen at the MoMA

BY Hari Sreenivasan  March 17, 2010 at 3:58 PM EDT

Inside China, the country at the heart of our new, global economy, one director is projecting a very different view of what modernization looks like in real human terms.

The films of Jia Zhangke show “a China not seen on film before,” explained Jytte Jensen, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, where Jia is the subject of a new retrospective. “He shows us ordinary, plainspoken people who have been displaced by much of this economic miracle that has happened in China.”

Raised in a small town in Shanxi Province, Jia Zhangke won acclaim on the international scene before becoming well known in his home country. His films like “Platform,” “Still Life,” “24 City,” and “Going Home” have won awards over the last ten years at festivals in Hong Kong, Venice, and Berlin. Using both 35mm and digital film and handheld cameras, his films often feature China’s poor and working class laborers.

Through these characters, Jia reveals the tenuous fate of the work force fueling China’s economic engine, who labor largely behind the scenes, caught in the limbo of modernization. With the caring hand of a documentarist and the exactitude of an auteur, Jia creates films that entertain as they illuminate. His 2006 film “Still Life” tracks a coal miner (played by Jia’s cousin, a coal miner from Jia’s home province) in search of his wife and daughter. He works in a village upstream from the Three Gorges Dam, the extensive hydroelectric project on the Yangtze River. Using recent Chinese history as his scene-setter, life in “Still Life” appears both real and surreal, as the characters wander around 2,000 year-old towns which have been torn down and flooded, and where more than one million people were displaced from their homes in the name of economic progress.

In the opening scene of “Still Life,” a beautiful, slow-moving shot tracks travelers on a ferry. People on the boat look poor, but they all have cell phones and video games in their hands. The extras who are caught in the camera’s glance stare back, lending an eerie quality of docu-voyeurism to his films.

In his documentary “Useless” (2007), Jia examines clothing production in China, and thereby, our constant consumption. He shows factory workers eating lunch, a fashion show produced by a designer who wants to bring back an appreciation for handmade durable goods, and the dying tailoring trade, hemorrhaging because people can’t compete with mass production.

“He doesn’t preach to us, he really shows us the people — the people living on the edge of Chinese society, the people that this [economic] miracle didn’t bring with them,” says Jensen.

Jia’s films feel both personal and panoramic: over an understated, but distinctive soundtrack of ambient street noise, we see life in slow, graceful tracking shots. In a 2003 interview in Cineaste, Jia said he wanted to show “the constant struggle between people and time.”

His films have not always sat well with the Chinese government. The characters in Jia’s films “all live under gritty circumstances; their social lives are messy; they’re unhappy,” admits Jensen. “That was not something that was usually shown; it was tucked away and he brought it out.” As a result, Chinese authorities banned Jia’s films in 1999 and he was blacklisted from all of the film equipment and processing shops. But he continued to make films illegally using personal and foreign funding, smuggling his finished products to film festivals.

In China, all films and television programs are pre-censored by the Central Propaganda Department and China’s Ministry of Culture. According to Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, who writes about China’s transitioning society, the government is becoming more selective about what they censor: “They have the basic criteria: If a medium can reach a large number of people then the government is very strict about what can go through that medium.”

After Jia and other young Chinese filmmakers began to rack up global kudos, the Chinese censorship system underwent a sea-change.

“They use to treat film as a propaganda tool,” Jia told the New Yorker last year, “Now they saw it as an industry.” In 2003, authorities made a deal with a group of banned filmmakers to submit their films to the censors, in a move that has been construed as a copout on the part of the filmmakers.

Jia has said that if he had quit filmmaking when he was banned in 1999, the system would have never changed. But Jia also wanted his films seen in China, by the sort of people who often appear in them. “If this group is marginalized, then their faces, their language, their food, their living conditions, their homes, their expressions — all of that — is erased from the screen to zero,” Jia told a film crowd on a panel in Beijing in 2009 (from a New Yorker profile). “Anything I can do to hold on to them and make people see them onscreen is the most important thing I can do! Otherwise they’re silenced!” He now submits script treatments to the censorship boards, and is subject to a final editing approval process.

Even so, Jia’s films remain largely under the radar, even in China, where more commercial kung fu films still reign supreme. And that may have played to Jia’s benefit.

“If an art reaches only an exclusive, small audience, the government doesn’t bother,” says Minxin Pei, “That’s why China has one of the most modern, avant garde art scenes in the world.”

Jia’s latest film is called “I Wish I Knew,” and comes out in China in March. A partial sneak preview of that film plays at the MoMA during his retrospective, while screenings of his other works run thru March 20.