Who’s Jia Zhangke?

The short answer is that he is a Chinese film director who makes really good movies. But, there have been even bigger claims. NPR critic John Powers praised him as “(perhaps) the most important filmmaker working in the world today.” He is routinely referred to as a “master filmmaker.” He is among certain circles, considered one of the best filmmakers in the world. Ever. So then, why is it so many people seem to never have heard of him?

I have some theories on this. Subtitles. It’s hard for westerners to remember Asian names. His movies are long. His movies assume that his viewers have a certain amount of education and knowledge which many people just don’t have. His movies aren’t told the way most are. His movies are slightly slow. His movies can be hard to find. There’s too many fun things on Netflix to watch…All of these are probably contributing factors.

But this is the thing. The guy makes great movies. Like, really great. On top of that, he isn’t even fifty yet but is incredibly prolific and has already made more movies than many filmmakers will make in their entire careers.

Here’s a list of some of his films: ASH IS PUREST WHITE, MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART, A TOUCH OF SIN, 24 CITY, STILL LIFE, THE WORLD, UNKNOWN PLEASURES, PLATFORM and XIOA WU. And that doesn’t include his dozens of documentaries or short films.

So, who is this guy and what’s the big deal? There are many well-expressed opinions on that out there already. But let me give you my take on it. First and foremost, they are really good stories with really good characters.

The characters in a Jia Zhangke film tend to be unusually complex and “real.” They are neither perfect nor monsters. They are not just “flawed” in the Hollywood sense of the term. They embrace all the contradictions within people. They are good in some ways and horrible in others. They can be heroic and caring or completely self-serving in the blink of an eye. They are in all its beauty and in all its ugliness, very human.

It helps that Jia has some actors that are unbelievably skilled at portraying these subtleties and contradictions. One in particular is worthy of special mention, his favorite lead actress, Zhao Tao. She has appeared in most of his fiction features. She is consistently astounding. A truly mesmerizing performer.

But back to Jia. His movies have a powerful immediacy to them. He is part of a group of directors known as “The Sixth Generation” which embraced a more honest, sometimes documentary, approach to storytelling vastly different from the leading directors that proceeded them.

Before Jia and others in the movement, Chinese film was often more theatrical and tended toward historical dramas such as RAISE THE RED LANTERN. “The Sixth Generation” was far more interested in finding an honest way to express what their country was going through in their own lifetimes.

However, as much as Jia has admitted being influenced by documentary and the neorealists such as De Sica, his later films are far from the “documentary style” of some of his peers. They are truly epic in both technique and scope. Jia’s shooting style often embraces a particular type of majestic wide shot. The overall effect is a sense of visual style that is as much Antonioni as it is documentary.

Jia’s films capture China’s breathtaking transformation from rural-based economy to capitalist powerhouse over the last fifty years and the consequences that such change has created. His characters are often caught in these monsoons of immediate change and pay a high price for them. Workers in a state-owned factory are suddenly without jobs, coal mines are shut down because they are unprofitable, entire towns are wiped off the map as massive waster projects are built which submerge them for the benefit of the major cities. It’s these abrupt, sweeping changes which serve as the backdrop for the more individual dramas Jia focuses on.

Many times, Jia’s stories will not follow one character exclusively but several that are somehow connected. For example, in MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART he walked away from his main character to focus entire sections on the lives of her friends and estranged family members. Similar divisions of screen time among characters takes place in 24 CITY, STILL LIFE, A TOUCH OF SIN, and several other of his movies.

His stories also often span decades. 24 CITY was anchored by a specific location which went from important state-owned weapons factory, to privately owned refrigerator factory, to condos through the course of the movie.

It’s a combination of approaches, themes and techniques that doesn’t seem like it should work. But it does.

To bring it all back down to my own personal experience, when I watched ASH IS PUREST WHITE I found myself deeply interested in the main character. Zhao Toa played a woman who became stronger and stronger as her gangster lover became increasingly weak. The film worked great on a pure human conflict level. But I also came away feeling like I understood something different about modern China than I had before. It was something I hadn’t expected.

I should probably mention that Jia’s brutally honest take on China and his willingness to express it got him into a lot of trouble early in his career. Although he was a graduate of China’s most prestigious film academy, he was denied the usual state funding for making feature films most of his peers were able to access.

Jia’s first several films were very indie affairs shot super-cheap, often using digital video. He was considered a true “underground” filmmaker. It was only with THE WORLD in 2004 that he began to work with official approval from the Chinese government and all the funding and distribution support that could bring.

Since that time, Jia has cranked out one sensational film after another. He was even on track to have another film start production this year. Something the Coronavirus has thrown a wrench into. But my guess is even a global pandemic won’t stop this guy. He’ll find a way.

Intimate yet epic. It’s the peaceful coexistence of these two contradictory influences that help to make Jia’s films so compelling. They are small, subtle and very personal dramas within a method of storytelling that is vast and grand.

But don’t watch a Jia movie because he’s being talked up. Don’t watch it just to try to learn something about China. Watch a movie by this guy because he is truly a great storyteller.

It can be a little challenging to find a way to see them in the US. But they pop up in weird places. I think I saw at least one of them on Amazon Prime. As for which movie to start with, the British Film Institute actually wrote a whole little article on that which was quiet good. I would recommend starting with ASH IS PUREST WHITE because it’s probably easiest to find and it’s, you know, fcking amazing. But they’re all damn good movies.

Whichever one you decide to watch will probably pay off. Just see some Jia somewhere. Maybe you’ll be bored stiff. Maybe you’ll be totally confused. But I really doubt it. My guess is that, in spite of the vain efforts of this article, you’ll have the same reaction I had. It was something along the lines of “Holy Crap. That was amazing. Who is this Jia Zhangke guy?”