Film Review: Jia Zhangke: A Guy from Fenyang

Thoughtful and intimate portrait of Chinese writer-director Jia Zhangke, best known for his recent films 'Touch of Sin' (2013) and 'Mountains May Depart' (2015).
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Walter Salles’ documentary Jia Zhangke: A Guy from Fenyang is surprisingly free of the pitfalls one might imagine when one film director sets out to profile another. With the exception of a few insights by Jia’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Yu-Lik-Wai, and key crew members on Still Life (2006), technical matters are not discussed. Salles (Central Station, 1998) also does not seek common artistic ground. In addition to the men’s different ethnicities, the Brazilian biographer and the Chinese writer-director have rather disparate cinematic sensibilities. Instead, Salles’ documentary takes its cue from Jia’s sense of place, and his aesthetic preoccupations, that of the role of personal memory, as well as cultural and collective memory, in the individual search for meaning—and, by extension, in the pursuit of defining and depicting the human experience.

A Guy from Fenyang is mostly comprised of Jia’s ruminations as he walks through his hometown in the north of China, stopping to take a photograph with a friend of his late father, or visiting those who remember him as a boy, or who know him now as an internationally celebrated filmmaker. Since Jia’s features and documentaries are often set and shot on location in Fenyang, in Salles’ documentary the city’s geography triggers the sort of multilayered reminiscences that inform the Chinese filmmaker’s characters and narratives. Tao (Zhao Tao) in Mountains May Depart is just one example of such a character: she is the woman who stays in Fenyang, close to her family and her youthful pursuits, while over the years her husband and child travel, and settle in the West. Salles inserts long clips from seven of Jia’s narrative and documentary films, introducing the work and the writer-director’s recurring themes. For the aficionado, there is also astute commentary by Jia’s collaborators, including his wife and the star of many of his films, actress Zhao Tao.

The documentary begins with Jia’s remark that without the camera he “could not capture the details of life” and he “would be left with all I feel inside.” In the same vein, and in the most dramatic of Jia’s personal observations, he remembers his late father, a child of the Cultural Revolution, who never realized his intellectual ambitions. In the professional sphere, an appearance at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts yields revelations about Jia’s position as a Chinese artist. He is asked by a student if he will ever return to mainstream filmmaking. The question is a disguised reference to the fact that the writer-director’s movies are rarely approved for screening in Chinese theatres. Many people in China know Jia’s work from bootlegged DVDs. The filmmaker responds by explaining that after 1949, China’s cinema moved away from the lives of ordinary Chinese people, that “accents disappeared,” and that “there was no native land, no cultural identity.” Jia works to reclaim these, calling his characters the “non-holders of power.”

Jia rarely fields questions directly from the interviewers in A Guy from Fenyang (Salles and former Cahiers du Cinema editor Jean-Michel Frodon), Salles preferring short takes of his subject, and brief interviews with frequent collaborators, that build to a clever portrait of the writer-director’s instinctual way of work. For instance, Jia speaks with Han Sanming, a relative who inspired the protagonist in Still Life, a miner who travels to Fengjie looking for the wife he has not seen in 16 years. The city is being razed, section by section, because it will be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. Then, Jia recalls, Still Life was also inspired by the location and the massive project; he visited Fengjie when an artist friend, Lin Xiaodong, told him he was painting that fast-disappearing cityscape.

This leads to a film clip, but also to Yu-Lik-Wai’s remark that Jia “conned” him into using a very small camera by telling him he would be shooting a documentary about Fengjie. It was a decision, the cinematographer says, that allowed him to capture the dynamic landscape. He goes on to explain that Jia often works from an overriding idea of what he wants to depict, and then takes inspiration from what he finds when they are on location. Sound designer Zhang Yang remembers the gorge’s outstanding acoustics, and the ambient sound that he would never have been able to replicate in a studio.

The most satisfying self-reflexive moment in the documentary is when Jia admits that if filming is not going well, he feels assured, because he is “looking for something that hasn’t come into my awareness.” On the other hand, when matters progress without a hitch, he admits, “I really doubt myself.” Then he is “working with past lessons” and “losing sight of innovative paths.” A clip of Unknown Pleasures (2002) follows, a film about a new generation of Chinese youth that seeks freedom from all constraints, but then confronts a crisis of identity. In the clip, there is a shot of a young man on a motorcycle who is unable, for several minutes, to mount a steep hill. Jia explains that while filming that sequence, he felt that he had to stay on that shot, no matter how long it took to unfold, but he did not know why.

That sequence is an eloquent metaphor for what the filmmaker views as the struggle in Unknown Pleasures for meaningless personal liberties. If Jia did not know why he was holding that shot, he nevertheless felt that it was right. Great work comes of such intuition, as Salles implies. In having Jia revisit boyhood memory and cinematic memory, the Brazilian director leads his subject to confer meaning, to speak of being, to occupy that space he inhabits when he creates. That is an inspired approach to biography, and it results in a thoughtful portrait of this gifted artist.

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