Zhangke Jia. Like all most great auteurs it is the accumulation of Zhangke Jia’s body of work that you can fully appreciate the artist. He’s the leading director of the sixth generation of Chinese directors (fifth generation is the likes of Yimou Zhang and Kaige Chen). I’ll get to it more below but he likens himself to Ozu and Hsiao-Hsien Hou but I see more Antonioni in Zhangke Jia. The filmography depth is really what lands him here- A Touch of Sin is a really strong effort and I have it as his sixth best work. He’s a formal master with a set style that he doesn’t deviate from at all.
Best film: Platform
- 5th generation is Yimou Zhang. 5th generation films tended to be set historically or mythical but the 6th generation, Zhangke Jia included tend to be more grounded in reality
- Repeated scenes of authority figures or elders lecturing the youth and arguments coming from it
- A few very nice mountain landscapes but the most rewarding aspect of the film, by far, is the reoccurring long or medium long shots of characters in the foreground (or distance actually) with large brick building or architectural structures as the backdrop. They aren’t ruins, like Rossellini, but many are falling apart. It’s just wonderful style and film form and it’s the sort of film I can’t wait to see again because the impact of these shots, even the awareness of it (most critics don’t know what the hell they’re talking about) is accumulating- it was 40 minutes in before I realized this is what Zhangke Jia was doing
- Follows a 4-some mostly and their families- teens or young people who are in a “cultural team” or a small group
- Very autobiographical and that authenticity comes through- Fenyang is the actual town where Zhangke Jia grew up
- Live music throughout—8 or 10 scenes of songs
- Cultural clash throughout – not violent or anything it’s just there. We have city vs rural, modern vs. classic, movies (several scenes of the group watching or going to the movies), perms, bell bottoms
- Reminded me a little of Fellini’s I Vitelloni except here we have two females and two males in a group—not a pack of young men
- It’s telling that there’s a fist fight here in this long, meditatively paced film, and Zhangke Jia doesn’t show it
- I thought of Antonioni’s Red Desert often—and it was sad—these characters usually don’t bond (they are actually two stories of unrequited love in it) or find much to hold on to
- Mao in posters in the mise-en-scene quite often
- Set in 1980 which is a look back, since the movie was made in 2000, at the 20 year promise of modernity to a generation
- A meditation on modernity in China
- Jia, with his choreographed wide-screen long takes in long shot, may be the best cinematic composer of figures in landscapes since Michelangelo Antonioni. And as with Antonioni, the disconnections count more than the connections.” – Jonathan Rosenbaum, 2005
- Sad scenes with a rural cousin with no future- coal miner, can’t read
- All medium and long shots as we slowly absorb these characters, culture, and gorgeous rusticated building set pieces
total archiveable films: 6
top 100 films: 0
top 500 films: 0
top 100 films of the decade: 2 (Platform, Ash is Purest White)
most overrated: Zhang Jia has two films in the TSPDT consensus top 1000 already and I’m al ittle lower on both- Platform is #364 and Still Life is #599. I’m not far off but still. As I noted above when waxing poetic about Platform you really need to see it at least twice (and I haven’t)- I was a decent way into the film because I realized what Zhangke Jia was doing and the form had taken hold. The World is #1010, but I haven’t had the chance to catch Pickpocket or Unknown Pleasures yet and they both land between 1001 and 2000 on TSPDT as well.
most underrated : Ash is Purest White is ranked #21 from 2018 on the TSPDT 21st century list and that’s far too low.
- A pretty daunting film formally- I could see it working on me more with a second and third viewing
- A three-pronged love story—three different time periods (like Zhangke Jia’s previous Mountains May Depart) and carried out with three different color schemes. The love story has a social-political backdrop. We get the drums three times during the film.
- The first section is green—great stain glass window used again and again—near the end of the first section we have an impression one-take fight scene
- Great shot of Volcano in the backdrop- architecture as character- it’s Antonioni and Ozu going back to Zhangke Jia’s previous work — especially Platform—
- The second section is red—a boat, red awnings, flowers, the dramatic singer in a red jump suit, gas station, red bikers helmet,
- Socio-political—minors protesting, an entire town moved because of a damn, expansionism and development
- There are some just flat bad scenes- like her singing along to a song of regret—pandering
- The third section—blue—blue train seats, blue “jeep” hat on stranger, Bin’s blue argyle sweater. Her blue vest.
- The alien scene—need to see again—having a hard time
- The long-dramatic pauses in the scenes takes some adjusting
- From an architecture standpoint we get the volcano again as Bin learns to walk—I especially like the empty run down outdoor theater—but Zhangke Jia makes the mistake here of not dwelling on it like the run-down boat in McQueen in Shame – or like Kogoada in Columbus– this is not the achievement Columbus is
- Again- formally strong- we get the drum going off three times during the film
gem I want to spotlight : Mountains May Depart
- It’s the story of Tao (Tao Zhao) and her love choices and family—but also, because it’s Zhangke Jia- it’s about China and modernization. He tells it in 3 acts set in 1999, 2014 and 2025
- Zhangke Jia calls it “democratic” framing—the way he holds a scene and is ambiguous about the characters to let the sophisticated viewer make their own choices- there’s a lot less of that here- it plays closer to a straight drama
- Changing landscape of China both physically—but mainly here towards the westernization of China and Zhangke’s criticism of it—song to open and close “Go West” song played as a dystopian reminder as it takes away these characters roots, languages, ability to communicate and see family
- First setting is Fenyang—Zhangke Jia’s hometown
- The 1999 story is a love triable—a few cultural musical interludes shot digitally but he doesn’t keep this up in 2014 or 2025 sections
- Impact of time on China and ourselves or characters—title of film
- 46 minutes before credits—crazy—lone prelude
- Another story of unrequited love—a coal miner vs city rich “westernized” character (Yi Zhang)
- Unfortunately—much more of a straight melodrama then platform—not a lot of ambiguity
- Rich guy changes name to English name and moves to Australia. Son’s name is Dollar” and literally can’t communicate with Dad because he doesn’t speak Chinese and dad never learned English
- Everyone depressingly forced to speak English, there’s eating McDonalds in 2025 as well- odd propagandistic dystopia in the 3rd act
- You’re also asking these actors to, largely, act in English and it doesn’t go well
- Melodramatic music
- The political/cultural impact in China
- Deliberately paced
- Formal master, Mountains May Depart and Ash Is Purest White are three-pronged stories set over a period of years.
- modernity to a generation, changing landscapes
- All medium and long shots as we slowly absorb these characters, culture, and gorgeous rusticated building set pieces or landscapes
- Melodramatic music
- Long shots and long takes—he talks about how he wants to give his films a sense of democracy- for the audience to choose
- The backdrops- foreground/background mastery (whether it’s a dilapidated building in Platforms, mountains, a gorge or volcano in Ash is Purest White is absolutely Antonioni and L’Avventura– he’s an Antonioni acolyte
- Hou Hsiao-hsien influence is clear like on most of Zhangke Jia’s work—the longer takes here as the camera goes back and forth as they play mahjong is a nod to Flowers of Shanghai
- this dialogue scenes often feel are very stagey, otherworldly or ethereal— characters speaking dramatically, looking off in the distance and not at each other—stylized, feel—almost Ordet-like
- Ash I Purest White
- Still Life
- The World
- Mountains May Depart
- A Touch of Sin
By year and grades
|2004- The World||HR|
|2006- Still Life||HR|
|2013- A Touch of Sin||R|
|2015- Mountains May Depart||R|
|2018- Ash is Purest White||HR|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
What do you think of Andrew Stanton director? Wall-E, Nemo…
I agree with Drake Walle and Finding Nemo are 2 incredible movies.
@m — Love those two films — but not his others– but still- strong filmography. I can’t compare him with Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon as for as directors/auteurs who work in animation. I think more that he was a guy who directed two really good movies than a great director if that makes sense. How about you?
I just caught Pickpocket on Mubi and was very impressed. Maybe I just haven’t seen enough micro-budget films, but I don’t often see a director with such limited resources creating something as stylistically striking as this (at least in the last couple of decades). It is very much carrying on from the Italian neorealists, especially Bicycle Thieves (lining a street with bikes during a key scene of the protagonist stealing from a stranger is surely no accident). And though we get long, handheld tracking shots out on the streets, inside the mise-en-scene is so controlled, the camera sitting in long unbroken takes soaking in some stunning colours and shot compositions. If you ever get around to it I’d love to hear your take on this.
I’m really loving the Jia Zhangke collection that was added to the Criterion channel recently. I’ve been conducting my own study and am just over halfway through. Still Life blew me away – the Antonioni influence goes way beyond his use of architecture as character there, but the blending of sci-fi elements with realism feels so much like the finale of L’Eclisse, right down to the futuristic score in this empty, otherworldly ghost town. It seriously challenges Platform for being his best film, or at least so far. Fascinating how he just keeps inching a little further away from his pure neorealist roots with each film, but never loses the authenticity. I haven’t gotten to Ash is Purest White yet but very much look forward to it.
@Delcan- nice work Declan. Appreciate the share here.
I finished my Jia Zhangke study recently, and then for good measure went back to rewatch Xiao Wu and Platform. I would like to write up something a bit more comprehensive at some point, but at this point this would be my ranking.
1. Platform (MS)
2. Still Life (MS)
3. Ash is Purest White (HR)
4. The World (HR)
5. Xiao Wu (R/HR)
6. A Touch of Sin (R)
7. Unknown Pleasures (R)
8. Mountains May Depart (R)
I also watched 24 City which blends the line between fiction and documentary a bit too much to be considered alongside the others. Still very glad I watched it though, Jia is one of those filmmakers who really pushes the boundaries of realism in both directions – at times really playing right into the raw naturalism of the scene, and then very occasionally rupturing the realism with something as absurd as a building blasting off into space.
My top two in particular are very close, and Still Life could overtake Platform at some point. Platform is so dense, so I’m really glad I watched it twice. There is so much I didn’t realise that went over my head the first time. It felt a bit like Linklater’s Boyhood in the way it follows young people growing up over such a huge period of time without any chapter markers. It just flows so organically, and the cultural changes are so incremental that you only realise what these characters have lost when it’s finally gone. It’s just a really formally ambitious piece of Chinese cinema.
Still Life competes with it in its breathtaking visuals though. If Platform was a slow disintegration of a culture, then this one speeds that up so we can see an entire city crumbling before our eyes – powerful use of architecture collapsing in the background behind our characters, often interrupting rather quiet scenes with quite violent imagery. It reminds me a bit of the avalanche scene in The Revenant, but all throughout the film. Then there are allusions to an alien invasion, from the very obvious UFO flying overhead, to the synths underscoring these workers in hazmat suits combing through ruins, looking like extra-terrestrials. It really serves to emphasise how bizarre and foreign these changes are, and is such a potent metaphor. Jia briefly returns to this alien metaphor in Ash is Purest White, but it isn’t as formally earned there so it doesn’t quite land the same way as it does in Still Life.
I haven’t yet seen anything from Yimou Zhang or other Fifth Generation filmmakers, but I’m really interested now to go back and watch this entirely different type of Chinese cinema that Jia was rebelling against.
@Declan- Thank you for putting this together. Great work.