in Critic's Guides | 15 APR 07
Featured in
Issue 106

Life in Film: Jia Zhangke

In an ongoing series, frieze asks artists and filmmakers to list the movies that have influenced their practice

in Critic's Guides | 15 APR 07

Jia Zhangke is one of the most important Chinese filmmakers of the ‘Sixth Generation’. His most recent film, Sanxia haoren (Still Life, 2006), recounts the impact on people’s lives of the flooding of a town on the Yangtze river in China to make way for the Three Gorges Dam.

I was 21 years old when I saw Huang tu di (Yellow Earth, 1984) by Chen Kaige. It turned out to be a defining moment for me; the point at which I decided to become a filmmaker. I saw the film in Taiyuan, which is the capital of the province of Shanxi where I grew up – part of the ‘yellow earth’ region of northern China to which the film’s title refers. The plot revolves around a Communist soldier who is sent to the area to collect traditional folk songs that can be adopted by the Party. When he gets there, however, he discovers that the hardships endured by the local people mean that the songs are far removed from the uplifting ones he was hoping to find. Up to that point, the life that I knew had never been depicted in film: it was unthinkable at the time that the everyday struggles of the people would be showcased in a movie. All we usually saw were Communist propaganda films that painted history according to the Party line. Chen unearthed the poetry of real life: how people can be subjected to repressive tradition, but try to free themselves from it. In my early films, I sought to show how slowly the culture in this region evolves, and that is still my aim today, even if I shoot films in Beijing or at the Yangtze, as I did recently. Chen is now a powerful figure in cinema, and his films don’t provoke censorship issues any more, but back in the early 1980s he was the model of an independent Chinese filmmaker.

Shortly after seeing Huang tu di, I discovered Fengkuei-lai-te jen (The Boys from Fengkuei, 1983) by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, which had a similar impact on me. The film tells the story of a group of boys from an island off Taiwan. Upon finishing school, they decide to leave their rural homes behind and settle in Kaohsiung, the second-largest city in Taiwan. It is also the city where Hou Hsiao-Hsien spent his youth, after having left mainland China with his parents to seek refuge from Communism. Although in many respects a classic coming-of-age tale, the film nonetheless surprised me by mirroring my own experience closely. This has remained the most important aspect of filmmaking for me: that films relate to my own life, that I can recognise myself in them.

For centuries, talking about oneself simply wasn’t part of Chinese culture. Buddhist philosophy maintains that there are four key stages in life: you are born, you grow up and live as an adult, you get old, and then you die. Cinema can’t show what may be the metaphysical level of this, but it affirms the human quality behind these things. The concept of the individual was something the Chinese had to discover and, in some ways, cinema facilitated this. In Hsiao-Hsien’s film, for instance, when the boys from Fengkuei move to the city, they are haunted by images and dreams from their former lives. That’s why I don’t want to make films that are easy and smooth. Just as I speak English with a Chinese accent or Chinese with a regional accent, I want to make movies with a Zhangke accent. This is something I feel increasingly passionate about as China develops rapidly into a modern society. Cinema should contain human flavour and the flavour of the auteur. Sadly, however, it would seem that, over the last hundred years or so, the medium of film has become increasingly subject to industry standardization, and the human life force in cinema is becoming less and less significant.

I only got to see the classics of western cinema after I moved to Beijing. My favourite European filmmaker is Robert Bresson. He has the ability to show states of mind on film, which is an extremely difficult thing to pull off. In Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped, 1956) a prisoner is patiently working on a scheme to escape from a Nazi jail when he is joined by a new cellmate and has to decide whether he should trust him with his plans. I saw it on video at the Beijing Film Institute at a screening for students. Today you can pick up a copy of almost any film on DVD, even this very special one, on any street corner in the city.

Sometimes I have been termed a neo-realist filmmaker, and there is some truth to this, since I admire Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) by Vittorio de Sica. It’s a simple story about a man who is beset by problems in the impoverished environs of postwar Rome. But the film is essentially about the beauty of life, which is reflected in De Sica’s assiduous observation of the surroundings: the sun, the light, the city. He has a marvellous way of dealing with objects. There is one particularly affecting scene in which the protagonist takes his son to eat a humble meal of fried bread – quite simply all they can afford – while at the next table a wealthy family feast on abundant, enticing dishes. This scene seems so evocative today when we live in a society where we no longer appreciate food’s worth.

One overwhelming memory I have of Fenyang, the town where I grew up, is the vast numbers of loudspeakers that filled the air with a rich soundscape of political propaganda and music. Most factories had a tannoy system that would broadcast revolutionary songs or announce which new official had come to work there, or which party member had recently been pardoned or sanctioned. In the mornings, the workers who slept in dormitories at the back of the factory would file out to its bugle call. Such sounds transport me instantly back to that era, and my childhood reality is reflected in the multiple layers of sound that I use in my own films. In Shijie (The World, 2004), for instance, which reflects on the global imagery resonant in contemporary China, I quoted the soundtrack from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953) because I admired Ozu’s portrayal of familial relations and societal transformation. Japan in the 1950s, Taiwan in the 1980s, China in the 1990s: different films, different eras, different countries, all united by a synchronicity of modernity. As for contemporary film, I liked Hak se wui (Election 2005) and the sequel Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai (Election II, 2006) by Hongkong filmmaker Johnnie To. He portrays China as a Mafia society, which I agree with. Even the Party is a Mafia organisation.