Jia Zhangke

Hong Kong / China / Japan / France, 2000


Review by Chet Mellema

Posted on 24 May 2011

Source New Yorker Video DVD

Near the midpoint of Platform, Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s second narrative feature, a young performing arts troupe hitching an effortless ride in the back of a truck passes a laborer walking on the side of the road. A member of the troupe and self-described “artworker,” Cui Mingliang, recognizes the hiker as his cousin, Sanming, and offers to give him a lift to the top of the hill. Rather than climb aboard and enjoy a carefree ride, however, Sanming politely – with an almost reflex-like response – declines the proposal and elects to traverse the hill via a narrow footpath in the brush adjacent to the road. The path zigzags its way around bushes and through the dirt directly up the steepest part of the slope. It is conspicuously defined, the result of countless feet following the same route. When compared to climbing aboard the truck with his cousin, or even walking on the level surface of the road, the footpath presents the greatest challenge, which may call into question Sanming’s motives for passing on the opportunity of a ride, or even his intelligence. But the key to this seemingly innocuous scene lies in Sanming’s instant denial of Mingliang’s suggestion and his rote devotion to the footpath. It’s as if Sanming didn’t even realize he was able to choose. And why should he? As a peasant laborer in 1980s rural China, his life has been dictated for him. Due to years of social conditioning, Sanming thoughtlessly accepts the consequences of his role in Chinese society. Who is he to say otherwise?

This scene, through an efficient visual language and nominal reliance on dialogue, presents a stark juxtaposition of the social roles elected – or, perhaps more appropriately, assumed – by Mingliang and Sanming, respectively. Mingliang is an aspiring artist and desires a sense of personal achievement, while Sanming is resigned to his status as a laborer and the hardships that accompany such a designation. Mingliang’s comfort with his ability to choose sharply contrasts Sanming’s intuitive acceptance of the way things are. And although the cousins appear to be about the same age, their immediate futures are headed in opposite directions. Like many others in Platform, the above-described scene is a gripping illustration of the film’s unassuming affront to the cavernous social dichotomies found in China during the 1980s, as the country begins to transition from a forced communal mindset to an acknowledgement, of sorts, of the individual. Along the way, the film addresses a kaleidoscope of issues, including the roles and contributions of the artist in a labor-intensive society; the onslaught of capitalism and its side effects; youthful longing to travel and seek other locales; familial, generational and class divides; and the influx of Westernized pop culture on a people virgin to such influence. Amazingly, Jia seamlessly weaves these issues into a layered and visually stimulating thematic tapestry that rewards a patient viewer.

The films of Jia Zhangke, the young director who is the most well known of China’s “Sixth Generation” of filmmakers, have recently received more attention in the United States than ever before. This period of discovery is due in large part to the availability of a handful of his movies on DVD, the domestic releases of Jia’s Still Life and 24 City, and an online film community thirsting for substantive cinematic discourse wherever it may originate. (Because I am not a Jia Zhangke expert, an historian, or an authority on Chinese cinema, I will defer to the well-versed on such topics and would certainly suggest, for starters, reading the reviews for Still Life that are just a click away, and the treasure trove of materials on Jia at Senses of Cinema.) Even though Jia’s films narratively address concerns exclusive to China (and are quite possibly enhanced for those with an intricate knowledge of the region and its history), they invariably convey and confront desires, emotions, and themes unique to no individual, time, or location.

Platform follows the members of the state-sponsored Peasant Culture Group from Fenyang, an economically stricken rural city in China’s Shanxi Province, from their local performances of dutiful Maoist propaganda in the early 1980s to their Western-influenced electronic rock concerts nearly a decade later. The group navigates the significant social and economic issues evolving in China over those 10 years with mixed results as it is inevitably privatized and later disbanded—a transparent metaphor for the country as a whole during that tumultuous time period. Yet the individual characters, relationships, and ideas at work in Platform present the viewer with more than enough cinematic subtleties to consider. And the unhurried, elliptical pace at which Jia’s film unfolds over its 150-minute running time allows plenty of room for reflection. The director’s reliance on long takes, often involving only a modicum of action, is unlike almost anything you’ll find at your local multiplex this weekend. While Platform may feel languid or slow to some, its deliberate rhythm is an apt complement to its thematic content, specifically its efforts to accurately convey the passage of time and to establish the dynamics of the interpersonal relationships – or lack thereof – of its characters.

Consider one of the film’s early scenes in which Mingliang and his friend Zhang Jun, both members of the Culture Group, excitedly try on new bellbottom jeans. They are visibly pleased with their new status symbols, which are “trendy in the big cities.” At the other end of the spectrum, however, are the reactions of Mingliang’s parents. First, as Mingliang anxiously waits for his mother to finish hemming his new threads, she chastises him for not working and his lack of contribution to the community. Mingliang retorts that he is an “artworker” and must avoid performing manual labor. Then, moments after Mingliang slides into the new jeans, his father arrives home requiring help unloading logs from a truck. Mingliang’s father instantly voices displeasure at his son’s attire by asking if he “can squat” in such an impractical get-up. After a lifetime of subservience to Mao Zedong’s party principles, Mingliang’s father is concerned only with whether his rebellious child can work in the new jeans. For him, clothes are functional and nothing more—certainly not superfluous symbols of cultural standing. The divide between Mingliang and his parents, and especially his father, is glaringly exposed by the arrival of the bellbottoms. But it feels as though this is one in a series of events that have already taken place and slowly but surely driven an intellectual and emotional wedge between these two exasperated generations. To underscore this gulf of incomprehension, Jia frames Mingliang and his father at a distance and with noticeable space between the two men. It is a space that both seem incapable of penetrating and a recurring visual motif in the film.

Indeed, the impassable spaces that separate Platform’s characters from one another, and also from their surroundings, find their way into virtually every scene of Jia’s film. In calling attention to the physical distance between his characters, the director effectively highlights their mutual frustrations and inabilities to communicate. A salient example of such impotency is a conversation between Mingliang and his would-be girlfriend, Yin Ruijuan. Jia sets the stage by framing one person on one half of the screen with the other engulfed by a wall of stone. As Mingliang speaks to Ruijuan, she is hidden behind the wall, and Mingliang is the only person visible. But as Ruijuan begins to orate, she replaces Mingliang in full view and he assumes her previously veiled position. They continue taking turns speaking and exchanging positions for the duration of their rendezvous. Although we always see and hear who is talking and what is said, we never see an acknowledgement or reaction from the listener, and therefore feel like no real communication is taking place. As earnest as their attempts may be, they cannot find a way through or across the spatial divide thwarting their chances for an affecting relationship.

If the spaces prohibiting Platform’s characters from effectively communicating tend to demoralize and stunt the development of their relations, the desire to break away from their restrictive, rural setting provides the most constant source of frustration throughout the film. It would be an understatement to describe the film’s setting as bleak or desolate. Jia’s rugged and muted photography drains the film’s images of Fenyang of almost all color, with an omnipresent brownish-gray haze anchoring Mingliang and his friends to their hometown. And as in many areas of the world, Fenyang’s geographical divorce from areas of concentrated population make it all too easy to pass over when the state rations resources to upgrade infrastructure and technology. Fenyang has been left behind, literally crumbling alongside its disillusioned youth. Perhaps even more irritating to the members of the Culture Group than the condition of their environs, however, is the gradual awareness that a better – or at least different – life may await them in the “outside world.” This realization manifests in a discernible longing to travel and break away from their current circumstances—a feeling certainly not unique to the young citizens of Fenyang.

Pervading Platform is an external will, constantly pulling at the youthful idealism of its characters, who seem powerless to deny it. Jia methodically establishes his characters’ yearning for movement and change. Note the repeated shots of Mingliang standing on the edge of a precipice and gazing over a vast expanse or toward an alternative destination, or sequences of characters staring at mountains in the distance or passionately chasing a train. The viewer is left to wonder if Mingliang and his friends will ever reach a state of contented peace. The director offers a subtle suggestion that the answer may not exist in their travels as, despite their best intentions and varied experiences, each member of the Culture Group eventually makes their way back to Fenyang. This return to the point of beginning lends the film’s final moments a somber overtone, albeit one that is strangely comfortable. When considering the film as a whole, the return to Fenyang seems inevitable and undeniably nostalgic. It is not a time for despair, though, as Mingliang and his peers have chosen, or resigned, to come home.

In an interview with Stephen Teo for Senses of Cinema, Jia Zhangke revealed that “[t]he title Platform refers to a point of departure as well as a point to which one returns.” It also evokes the performances of the Culture Group, but the director’s stated intention is well served: Platform’s characters come full circle. Whether their return is an exercise of free will is the issue that lingers.

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