BY Anthony Hawley in Opinion | 26 OCT 20

Jia Zhangke Paints a Nuanced Portrait of China’s Economic Boom

The filmmaker’s latest documentary, Swimming Out till the Sea Turns Blue, is an object study of the generations affected by industrialization

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BY Anthony Hawley in Opinion | 26 OCT 20

‘What trouble did Father have to save enough money for such a costly, unnecessary, luxurious white shirt?’ muses Chinese novelist Liang Hong in Light of Liang Guangzheng (2017). These same words, read by Liang’s young son, serve as a voice-over to the final section of independent Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s latest documentary, Swimming Out till the Sea Turns Blue (2019), during which a short-sleeved white shirt appears on screen, newly pressed and starched, hanging from a makeshift laundry line. It shines against the dilapidated house behind it with the unnatural brightness of a fluorescent light, drawing a sharp contrast with Liang’s recollections of a difficult upbringing wrought with financial hardship.

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Jia Zhangke, Swimming Out till the Sea Turns Blue, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and mk2 films

Such contrasts run through the film, which premiered in the US at the 58th New York Film Festival. Composed of 18 short chapters and narrated primarily by three novelists and their close family members, it toggles between brief, poetic sections and more sustained portraits of multiple generations caught up in the complexities of China’s recent economic boom. The final documentary in a trilogy examining the country’s arts and literature, the film layers first-hand accounts with text extracts by the featured authors and offsets them against the present generation’s reception of past struggles. After reading from his mother’s book, for instance, Liang’s son says that he’d like to have met his maternal grandfather so he could ask him questions, such as whether he had enough to eat. It seems no coincidence that the young boy’s shiny Bose Bluetooth headphones feature prominently at this moment, as if to emphasize the stark generational contrast between scarcity and abundance.

Structured in the manner of an experimental novel, Swimming Out braids together nostalgic reminiscences of a pre-digital world with glances at our contemporary ecology of screens. In the film’s opening chapter, an elderly man recounts how, in 1949, the writer Ma Feng convened a group of locals in Jia Family Village (no relation) to address the community’s severe water contamination. Together, the villagers installed a purification system and improved their crop yields. Such first-hand stories of communities working together in extreme conditions recur throughout Swimming Out and are a testament to the nation’s indomitable spirit.

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Jia Zhangke, Swimming Out till the Sea Turns Blue, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and mk2 films

Key to the film are the fleeting sequences in which objects are used to speak to the extreme disconnect between China’s Maoist past and its economically liberalized present. Chapter ten, which centres around Yu, opens with the writer watching a basketball game between Portland and Denver on his smartphone. In Chapter seven, which takes place on a train, an overpowering soundtrack fuses Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman’s ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ (1995) with the percussive alerts from passengers’ handheld devices. Like the ‘luxurious’ shirt tethering Liang to a complex past, these mobile devices act as dual symbols of the country’s recent economic prosperity and an increasingly disembodied daily existence. Perhaps what makes Jia’s cinema so compelling is that, while vast in scope and context, it eschews grandeur and conclusive posturing on China’s past or future. Rather, like an anthropological study of transformation, it locates its subjects at the nexus of a history in constant flux.

Main image: Jia Zhangke, Swimming Out till the Sea Turns Blue, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and mk2 films

Anthony Hawley is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in New York, USA.

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