Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jia Zhangke's Yulu – Striding confidently forward, but into what?

Folk singer Zhou Yunpeng, one of the personalities profiled in the Jia Zhangke-produced documentary Yulu.

As I sat watching the world premiere of Yulu – produced and partly directed by Jia Zhangke – at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, I kept thinking of a conversation I'd had in Beijing a few weeks earlier. During a rather heated post-lunch discussion about China's politics and film industry, a friend who is a scriptwriter for Chinese television declared that local filmmakers face two choices: they can remain “independent” and financially insecure or they can do the Communist Party's bidding and enjoy a comfortable future. He didn't believe there was any middle ground.

To back up his claim he wheeled out the example of Jia Zhangke, a formerly great filmmaker whose work, he said, has been blunted and tamed since he began submitting his features for approval by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television in 2004 (SARFT's approval is essential for official release in mainland China).

I have often heard this charge leveled at Jia by people in Beijing's creative and intellectual community, and previously I had always thought it unfair. Yes, his films have changed since his brilliant early productions like Xiao Wu (1997) and Platform (2000), but for my money his recent Still Life (2006) and I Wish I Knew (2010 – also screened at this year’s HIFF) have been every bit as challenging as his first features. Unfortunately the experience of watching Yulu made me reconsider my view.

It's perhaps unfair to describe Yulu as a “Jia Zhangke film,” since it actually comprises a dozen short documentaries by seven different directors profiling “up-and-coming figures who the younger generation can easily identify with,” to quote the Hong Kong Film Festival program. Jia produced the project and directs the opening and closing segments – both of which exemplify the film’s problems.

Yulu opens with Jia’s portrait of Cao Fei, an entrepreneur who has created a groceries shopping website. We hear about Cao's initial failure to generate interest in his site, which folded in early 2010, and his determination to succeed now that he has decided to try again. None of which, frankly, is very interesting. Cao seems like a nice enough guy, but we don't spend long enough with him to gain anything but a very superficial impression, and Jia's portrait is shot through with such a grating “up and at em” tone that it feels more like a motivational video than a serious documentary.

The superficiality of Jia's opening continues throughout Yulu, as the film relentlessly plows through a dozen short documentaries in 90 minutes. Some segments are saved by much more intriguing subjects, such as Wei Tie's affecting sketch of Zhao Zhong, founder of the Green Camel Bell NGO in China's northwestern province of Gansu. Zhao explains how he started his environmental work after the life-changing experience of falling into an ice crevice in Tibet, where he was trapped for 33 hours. He also reveals the dangers of working in China's severely under-resourced and inexperienced NGO sector through the story of a young volunteer who drowned in the Yellow River in 2008.

Other engaging episodes included Tan Chui Mui's portrait of investigative journalist Wang Keqin, and Chen Tao’s profiles of the blind folk singer Zhou Yunpeng and the AIDS charity worker Zhang Ying. But most of the documentaries suffer from the same lack of depth that plagues Jia’s opening contribution.

It is in Yulu's final episode, however, that the film's irritating “can do” tone becomes something more disturbing. Directed by Jia Zhangke, the segment focuses on Pan Shiyi, founder and current chairman of SOHO China. Anyone who has lived in Beijing will be familiar with SOHO, a development company that has famously constructed a series of vast residential-commercial complexes around the capital. One of their most recent creations sits on the site of the original Sanlitun bar street in the middle of Beijing's embassy district, once a rather notorious strips of dive drinking establishments.

The SOHO complexes represent the more stylish end of a massive redevelopment program that has rapidly ‘modernised’ the face of the China's major cities over the past two decades. Unfortunately for many long-term inner-city residents, modernisation has involved casting hundreds of thousands out of their homes, often with little or no compensation, so that old apartment blocks can be cleared to make way for shiny new skyscrapers. Meanwhile developers and government officials – who are often one and the same – have reaped untold wealth.

Admittedly, SOHO’s complexes have largely been built on former industrial sites rather than residential areas, but like all such developments they have involved the commercialisation of land supposedly held by ‘the people’ under the socialist system, with the proceeds pocketed by officials. As this sympathetic Forbes profile from last year notes, figures like Pan Shiyi and his wife – SOHO CEO Zhang Xin – are widely despised because of the assumption that amassing wealth through property development in China is impossible without involvement in high level corruption. I don't know enough about SOHO to say for certain if this is true, but all my experiences in China indicate that developing prime Beijing real estate on the scale that Pan and Zhang have done would be impossible without some serious kickbacks and buddying-up to corrupt officials. In any case, SOHO's glossy but often poorly planned developments personify much that is wrong with China's model of urban development. Given Jia Zhangke's previous concern with the disenfranchised and the alienating effects of China's incredibly rapid plunge into rapid capitalism, his uncritical celebration of a figure who has amassed immense wealth through this process is somewhat puzzling.

Even more bizarrely, Jia claimed at the post-screening Q&A in Hong Kong that the main theme running through Yulu was the huge rift between rich and poor in China today. I'm not sure how he thought the film expressed this, given one of his own segments extolled a figure of extreme wealth. To me Yulu felt like a singularly undiscerning celebration of “high achieving” figures that showed little concern for what it is some of these people are achieving, and the means by which they are achieving it. Shortly after Jia spoke, an audience member pointedly asked if the Yulu's upbeat tone and theme of striding confidently forward were inspired by the walking figure of the Johnnie Walker logo – as viewers are reminded throughout, the liquor firm was the film’s principal sponsor.

Which brings me back to my friend's assertion that Chinese filmmakers face the stark choice of dwelling in financially impoverished isolation, or getting with the government program. These days that program is a mix of authoritarian politics and state-controlled capitalism that primarily benefits a very small elite – the essence of what academic Chris Berry calls China's “state-corporate hegemonic culture.” As with all forms of capitalism, the myth propping up this culture is that it gives anyone the chance to make their fortune. In China, this is even less true than the West, since the state holds all the trump cards, including the main industries, the media, and the courts. I once thought my friend's judgment regarding the position of filmmakers in this societal matrix too black and white. But when Jia Zhangke begins making films in which the very theme embodies his sponsor's logo, while celebrating property developers in one of the world's most brutally corrupt real estate markets, I have to wonder if my friend is so far off the mark.

The directors of Yulu are: Jia Zhangke, Wei Tie, Chen Tao, Song Fang, Chen Ziheng, Wang Zizhao, Tan Chui Mui.

Jia Zhangke at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival.

For those in Beijing, BC MOMA will be screening of Yulu this Sunday, July 24 at 8pm.

The following Saturday (July 30) at 4pm the same venue will be screening Zhao Liang's
Together, which I wrote about here.
Both films will screen with English subtitles.

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