Saturday, July 2, 2016

Jia Zhang-ke's new film "Mountains May Depart" at SIFF Cinema: Jul 1 - 7

In dedicating one of their Great Directors features to mainland China’s most prominent arthouse director, "A Guy From Fenyang" by the name of Jia Zhang-ke, Senses of Cinema predicated the recognition that would later come for the quietly controversial, deeply humanistic vision alive in his body of work. Zhang-ke's earliest acclaim originating from his string of first features, "The Pickpocket", "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures" spanning the years 1998-2002. It was his examination of Globalization and China's absorption of western market and consumer values in 2004's "The World" that he gained attention outside the European cinema festivals. Becoming in a short succession of years a internationally recognized filmmaking voice that strode a very precarious balance with China's censorship and state-run cinema funding. So that much more startling then, that when his next film set within the otherworldly landscape of the Three Gorges Damn Project. A film of lives changed, homes lost and cultural legacy literally washed away, 2006's masterwork "Still Life" not only winning him top prize at the Berlin and Venice Film Festivals, but paradoxically earning praise from China's then vice-President, Xi Jinping. With Jia's own perspective on the current state of his country offered in the pages of The Guardian, "China Must End Silence on Injustice, Warns Film Director Jia Zhang-ke" on the growing wealth inequality, worker exploitation and eroding social cohesion. That year saw him blending of his usual documentary aptitude with a newfound flare for bloodletting. His "A Touch of Sin" can be seen as the director's response to the growing backlash of mass protest, worker suicides, public violence, labor riots, upheaval against for-profit land seizures and the growing extremity of corruption of state and local officials. Jia's depiction of the rising occurrence of mainland China's explosive public response to social injustice explored in Tony Rayns' "A Touch of Sin: New China’s Loss of Social Cohesion Leads to Violence" and the New York Times, "Filmmaker Giving Voice to Acts of Rage in Today’s China".

Detailed in Kent Jones' "Wonders to Behold" coverage of it's premier at Cannes in 2015, Zhang-ke returned last year with a statement on the "Status of Love in the Age of Consumerism". What is incontestably his most purely emotional work, "Mountains May Depart" shares a explicitly political bent in it's "Showing the Human Stakes in a Changing China". Delivered as a trilogy of eras in the lives of the film's protagonists, the film exists on two temporal planes; that of the interlocking lives of the characters and that of the world, the first of which always moves more slowly than the latter. The film begins as the millennial cusp dawns and China enters into a embrace with capitalism. While simultaneously retaining the monolithic state structures of the past, it's more wealthy entrepreneurial citizens exhibit their newfound worship of consumer goods and brash materialism as status symbol. In this passage it most resembles a classic studio melodrama, with the love interests established that would later define the following decades of estrangement and heartbreak. Tao, a young woman involved with a childhood friend and coal-miner by the name of Liang, is being courted by the wealthy and conceited Jingsheng. After the purchase of the coalmine as yet another of his cache of investments, Jingsheng manipulates Liang out of the picture, ensnaring Tao. They later marry and have a child, which Jingsheng grotesquely names “Dollar”, so great is his belief in the child symbolizing China's influence in a new era of prosperous global capitalism. The film's second chapter centers around Tao, who assumes a tragic dimension in light of her marital disaster and the death of her beloved father. We witness her transformation into a troubled melancholy figure, further wounded by her son's encouragement to abandon his past, family and country of origin. As Peter Bradshaw cites in his review from Cannes, it is in this accumulating of the weight of time and remorse over the span of decades that Jia's film "Scales New Heights as a Futurist Drama". In it's final chapter "Mountains May Depart" transforms into a science fiction essay on China's global diaspora and it's potential imminent destiny of profound class stratification, the fallout from which seen as the ensuing generation's emotional and cultural alienation. Audacity of vision alone doesn't answer for the uneven nature of the film's maligned third-part foray into the English language. But to quote Jonathan Romney's Film of the Week review for Film Comment; "This is by nature a film of broad strokes; a melodrama in the grand manner, about the passing of time, the waning of love, the enduring tensions of a triangle, all against a global socio-economic backdrop."