Photo: mk2 FIlms
by Matt McCracken Featured Film Spotlight

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue | Jia Zhangke

May 24, 2021

Jia’s latest is a didactic, propogandist exercise, and something of a punctuating about-face from his best work. 

In a 2003 essay, Jia Zhangke — now the preeminent figure among his sixth generation class of Chinese filmmakers — recounted a conversation with renown British film critic Tony Rayns, who had asked for his opinion on the future of the film medium. He recalls that his reply to Rayns was that “the age of amateur cinema will return.” That sentiment would seem to encompass the values of Jia, the burgeoning underground artist, at that time; but now, some 17 years later, Jia has come to be considered the de facto curator of his nation’s contemporary cinema — a Chinese Scorsese, if you will, taking into account his roles as festival organizer, independent film promoter, and producer of films by upstart directors. The tension evident in Jia’s career is that between his “return to amateur cinema” and his eventual embrace of professionalism; the amateur hews closely to values of diversity, locality, the refusal of strict formal methods and principles, and freedom from customs, while a more professionalized approach to cinema elevates strict competency, marketability, formal rigor, and the refusal to be caught repeating oneself. This binary illuminates much: the deficiencies of mainstream cinema and the merits of a subaltern, non-professional artistry — and, of course, it offers a way of interpreting Jia’s own filmography, as well as his position within the contemporary Chinese cinema establishment.

Jia’s earliest films — and, indeed, those of contemporaries Wang Bing, Lou Ye, etc. as well — contain methodologies utterly at odds with those of the previous “generation” of Chinese cinema. Radical verité, docu-fictive strategies, and an emphasis on social realism are applied to studies of specific localities, each with their own intractable problems. The value of “diversity” could be better articulated here as “class position”: these early sixth generation films express the full spectrum of life in China. And that effort was an intentional one, as has been acknowledged by Wang, who once remarked that China’s fifth generation films had “only stories…no people.” Jia’s films from 1995’s Xiaoshan Going Home to 2013’s A Touch of Sin, register attentiveness to lived experience in the modern Chinese political and economic landscape. They are films defined by the elevation of virtues of the local and the diverse, that dedicate themselves to an awareness of the actual struggles of daily existence, the gargantuan acceleration in development in China’s historical moment, and the dejected and indifferent mental states that arise as people lack real power to affect change around them — whether that be explored in and around Jia’s hometown, and its province of Shanxi (Xiaoshan Going Home, Xiao Wu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures); or further afield in Beijing (The World), Chongqing (Dong and Still Life), or other reaches of China (Useless, 24 City, I Wish I Knew, and A Touch of Sin). 

The agency of individuals registers as such a paramount concern in these early Jia films that names, faces, and places recur, suggesting a fidelity to these people, and sites, and how they can be discovered and rescued from time. And the rich intertext produced by this effort indeed leaves nothing forgotten, leaves Jia’s narrative worlds open, even as this openness is countered by oppression within physical space. That tendency toward repetition, however, never precluded Jia from taking steps forward: he has, in fact, frequently proven himself to be at the forefront of Chinese filmmakers, incorporating new technologies into his films. In 2003’s Unknown Pleasures, Jia turns to digital and finds a means to both better court the immediateness of the life he wishes to portray, and to heighten its incongruities. The latter objective is made even more explicit in 2005’s The World, which incorporates animated sequences; in 2008’s Still Life, which features UFOs; and in A Touch of Sin, which makes prominent use of a CGI snake. That progression — and A Touch of Sin’s release in particular — ultimately heralded a change in Jia’s films, specifically as that relates to his relationship with the professional-amateur binary. Jia’s early films are frequently tethered to narrative, but they also draw heavily on nonfiction aesthetics, as a way to express and capture a sense of reality. (E.g. Still Life is set in the actual demolition sites of the Three Gorges, The World in a real theme park in Beijing, and 24 City — which is much closer to an actual documentary, but with fictive elements — in a state-owned factory that was turned into an apartment complex.) A Touch of Sin signaled a more decisive turn toward a mode of “storytelling” — toward professionalism. And, taking up Wang Bing’s criticism of the fifth generation as a guide for what defines the values of the sixth generation (i.e. less story, more people), this amounted to something of a betrayal of those ethics. 

While sourced from real stories of real people (that Jia came across on the Chinese social media service Weibo), A Touch of Sin is still, explicitly, made up of structured narratives. The film also demonstrates a certain erosion of locality and diversity; it’s less about life in specific places, more about a bigger idea of “China” — a trend that extends to 2015’s Mountains May Depart and 2019’s Ash Is Purest White, both being fictional narratives that are easiest to read as something like parables for the burgeoning middle class of the Xi Jinping era, films that espouse \the values of Chinese identity and its persistence in the face of globalization and other international struggles. Assuredly, there is merit to all these films as well, in particular to their formal rigor: the use of different film stocks and the incorporation of archival footage which, in the case of Ash Is Purest White, Jia shot himself years earlier. But there’s also the impression that Jia is leaving behind his interest in names, faces, and definite places — that he’s become a trafficker of the intertext of his films for their own sake, rather than what they once symbolized (his aesthetic can be seen mimicked by burgeoning filmmakers that he himself produces), and that the state that Jia himself is very much a representative of, as a member of the National People’s Congress, is dictating the values Jia’s films impart, and the conclusions that they draw.

All of this frames any consideration of what “a return of amateur cinema” might mean, on Jia’s terms — and the filmmaker’s latest, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, adds further doubt to the claim. Filmed during, and in the months after, a literature festival in Fenyang, which was founded by Jia, this documentary takes, as its object, the relationship between the Chinese rural and urban spheres — a point of focus that was gestured toward in Jia’s saccharine 2019 short The Bucket. Opening on a series of interviews with elderly members of a countryside village, in the orbit of Fenyang, the film begins by stressing the foundational importance of rural China to the nation’s (i.e. the People’s Republic’s) current prosperity, both economically and culturally, before broadening its scope, as literary figures born in successive decades — each of whom were raised nearby to major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an — discuss the importance of the countryside in shaping their early lives and work, as well as offering respite from the city as they’ve aged and noticed its absence in the lives of young people. 

In this way, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is as didactic and propagandistic as Jia’s most recent narrative features were parabolic, lamenting and elegizing a lost, rural-urban relationship through references to government policy changes in the 1980s; the film smacks of promoting the narrative of resurrection under Xi. While one could go on to complain about the interviewees and the storified presentation of their upward mobility, through a state-sanctioned evocation of Wang Bing’s form, one would be better pressed to scrutinize Jia’s questionable use of montage to highlight, for example, the contrast between literary figures speaking on the stage of his festival with young people using their phones or sitting inured to boredom in city streets. While Jia might once have understood and filmed this boredom as a symptom of class stratification, here — in a film in which even the camera movements feel rote — he seems to smugly preach against that reading. At one point, Jia goes so far as to capture one of the nation’s most highly regarded writers in the process of educating her clearly embarrassed child — who apparently attends one of China’s top high schools — on the subject of how to speak the local dialect that this film opens with. It’s hard to see, in all of this, the heralded future of “amateur cinema,” in which filmmakers “free themselves from conventional customs and restraints to an infinite space for creation” — as was the way that Jia characterized this idea in that 2003 essay. Instead, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue represents an adoption, and a standardization, of principles for a professionalized cinema, for a cinema that follows state dictum rather than operating under, through, and around it. Jia Zhangke may be a master but, in the words of former InRO Editor-in-Chief Sam C. Mac, he’s “the master who sucks.”

Originally published as part of Berlin International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 2.