Jia Zhangke and the stories men tell each other
Jia Zhangke described her new documentary, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” as “not only a journey into contemporary Chinese literature, but also a journey into the spiritual history of the Chinese people.” Appropriately, the film sees Jia playing the role of a sentimental tour guide, re-enacting the lives and experiences of four 20th-century authors through interviews and tableaux vivants of their hometowns.
The first subject of the documentary is perhaps the least known, but it is also perhaps the closest to Jia’s heart. The director kicks off the film in his hometown, Jia Family Village in northern Shanxi province, with the story of another local boy: Ma Feng (1922-2004), a leading figure in Shanyaodan Rustic School in Shanxi from the 1950s and 1960s.
The three other authors, however, are the real attractions of the film. In sequence, Jia Zhangke interviews well-known novelists Jia Pingwa (born 1952) and Yu Hua (born 1960) before finishing the film with non-fiction writer Liang Hong (born 1973). Discussions focus on themes that run through all of Jia’s feature films, including the individual search for identity and freedom and their indestructible connection to their home country. His choice of subjects is revealing. At a time when female writers occupy an increasingly important place in Chinese literature and literature, her choice to interview only one woman – Liang, also the only non-novelist in the group – traps the “swimming” in the past in a way he may not have. intended.
Audiences are first introduced to Jia Pingwa – no connection to the director – as he attends a qin opera performance in his hometown. Qin, like Jia Pingwa himself, is from the northwestern Shaanxi Province, and Jia has been a lifelong fan: his twelfth novel, “Qin Melody,” received the highest literature award in China in 2008.
A photo by Jia Pingwa from the documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue”. From Douban
Later, seated on the stage, Jia Pingwa tells the story of her family as a series of tricks that history plays on the individuals caught in her embrace. During the Chinese Civil War, Jia Pingwa’s uncle picked up a Nationalist Army coat thrown on a battlefield, which he then gave to Jia’s father. Years later, the mantle wreaked havoc on the house when the victorious Communists took it as proof that his father was a counterrevolutionary. His marred family history cost him the opportunity to serve in the People’s Liberation Army, as well as many study and work opportunities, until his calligraphy skills unexpectedly got him a job writing slogans for a local production brigade. It was his ability to write that finally allowed him to venture into the larger world; he used his quill to wrest control of the story that once threatened to win.
In “Swimming”, Jia Zhangke positions Jia Pingwa as a master of grand narratives, perfectly in tune with the cultural landscape and family structures of his hometown. It is therefore disappointing that neither the writer nor the director thought of questioning the author’s greatest blind spot: Jia Pingwa’s novels are littered with two-dimensional and objectifying representations of women that exist to satisfy the male gaze. . It’s also not like the issue isn’t related to the movie. During a family meal, the director captures a revealing exchange between the writer and her daughter in which Jia Pingwa berates her for her plan to publish a collection of poetry. âBeing a good wife and a good mother should come before writing poetry,â he told her.
Yu Hua injects a bit of much needed levity into the film, even though most of the stories he tells are taken from earlier writing and interviews. The gist of the story is this: After the Cultural Revolution, Yu failed to pass the college entrance exam and became a dentist in Haiyan, a small coastal town in eastern Zhejiang Province. Yu hated the job – in the film he repeats his oft-told joke that “the mouth is the least beautiful place in the world” – and came to envy the slow-paced life of the city’s cultural workers. So he decided to try his hand at writing novels.
A photo by Yu Hua from the documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue”. From Douban
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the heyday of post-revolutionary literature in China, young writers were a dime a dozen. Yu submitted many stories, but they were all rejected – until one day he received a phone call from a publisher in Beijing inviting him to come to the capital to revise a manuscript. The editor-in-chief took Yu under his wing and, within a year, he had become one of the most promising members of the new Chinese “avant-garde”.
In front of the camera, Yu Hua is exceptionally lively, mesmerizing the audience with the verve of a seasoned performer. He laughs at the bitterness and frustrations of his youth with the kind of satisfied hindsight that comes from knowing he would be pulled from obscurity and put on the fast track to success. Recalling the first time he received a note from a girl in class, he recalls that it was an official letter of criticism for an overdue library book. âIt was folded in such a complicated way that it took me 20 minutes to open it,â he recalls. “Finally, I opened it, and he was criticizing me, but I know that’s not what she really meant,” he said with a smirk.
At the screening I attended, the punchline made the female audience members laugh out loud, but maybe not in the way Yu had expected. If a 17-year-old Yu Hua were transplanted to the present day, he would undoubtedly be immediately recognizable by his classmates as the archetype of the “so mediocre but still so confident” man. The problem here is more than just a lame joke, however. Yu and Jia’s stories are linked by nostalgia for a time and place that few women will find relatable. Much of the reason their stories seem self-centered and self-involved is because at that time life in rural and semi-rural China really revolved around men.
It is Liang Hong’s responsibility to bring home the film, and the story she tells has little of the self-confidence that characterizes Jia Pingwa and Yu Hua’s tales. Instead, she fondly remembers the “things that are with you all your life”: the long illness of her mother, the fickle father who made sure she was educated but struggled with the responsibilities of managing her. ‘a household, and the talented older sister who sacrificed her youth to keep her family afloat. While Jia Pingwa and Yu seem to view their rise as almost preordained, Liang focuses on the price others paid to raise him. Through it all, she dispenses with the complicit selfishness of the two previous authors, courageously and altruistically exposing her heart to the camera.
A photo by Liang Hong from the documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue”. From Douban
When production of “Swimming” began, the project was called “Literary Memories of a Village”. Towards the end of filming, however, Jia followed Yu to his hometown of Haiyan. On a blustery night, Yu watched the choppy waves and vividly described the contrast between that sight and the brackish yellow waters of the coast when he remembered seeing when he was young. As a child, he remembers wondering if, if he kept swimming further and further, the sea would end up turning as blue as it was described in the books? Struck by the picture, Jia deleted his original title and renamed the film.
Symbolically, Yu Hua’s story was about his struggle to break free from the muddy waters of his hometown. In this, it sounds like Jia Pingwa’s account of how he used writing to escape his tainted middle class. Both see the world and return home triumphant, a journey that sums up the film’s dominant theme, as rose-tinged nostalgia and stories from the past are reused in the service of self-validation.
It is only Liang who briefly diverts the film from this selfish myth. As in her poignant documentaries about her hometown over the years, she tells stories not for herself or to improve her own life, but for her audience: to take them into the lives of ‘little black dots that move on earth – people – who are trapped by fatigue and happiness.
Sadly, her interview alone isn’t enough to offset the male-centric stance of the rest of the film. As I watched, I couldn’t decide if Jia Zhangke was as gender blind as his subjects, or if he had made the decision during the editing to let them tell their stories however they wanted. Judging by audience reactions, however, moviegoers didn’t appreciate the imbalance.
Forced laughs and a muted critical response will hardly end Jia Zhangke’s career, but the film highlights a deeper problem: early-successful male writers like Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and even Jia Zhangke him. even, run the risk of losing touch with the real world. Maybe they don’t know or don’t care, but this lack of awareness could one day cost them not just the women, but their entire audience.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: director Jia Zhangke (right) and writer Yu Hua. From @ è´¾æ¨æ¯ on Weibo)