Judge Joe Armenio hears Shenxi Province is lovely this time of year.
"A long and empty platform/My short-lived love/Lonely, we cannot wait/All my love is outbound/Nothing on the inbound train/My heart waits forever."
The above quotation, from which Jia Zhang-ke's Platform takes its title, is from a popular Chinese song of the 1980s; its melancholy feel sums up the film's tone of disaffection and sheer boredom, while its central presence in the film highlights Jia's preoccupation with popular culture. As Shelly Kraicer, editor of Chinese Cinema Digest, says in his booklet essay for this DVD, pop culture is the central character of Platform, a film whose human population remains aloof and unknowable. Jia's chilly style might be a bit startling to Western fans of recent Chinese film. The "Fifth Generation" filmmakers, who came of age of the late 1980s and early 1990s, are best known for their politically brave but traditionally structured narratives about apolitical protagonists struggling through turbulent times. The most famous of these are Zhang Yimou's To Live (1994), Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine (1993), and Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Blue Kite (1993). For all of their virtues, these are not formally challenging or experimental films; Zhang Yimou, the most internationally successful of Chinese filmmakers, has taken a further step towards traditional plots and structures with his recent martial arts epics, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers.
Facts of the Case
Jia is a younger man (born in 1970), and Platform (2000), while similarly framing its characters against the grand march of history, often is a maddeningly abstract film. The plot, such as it is, deals with a group of young theater performers working in the city of Fenyang (Jia's hometown) in the remote northern Shenxi province; the central characters are two men and two women whose performances in the troupe and uneasy couplings and uncouplings span the decade of the 1980s. The film also deals with the home life of one of these men, Cui Mingliang (Wang Hongwei), who comes the closest to being the film's central character; over the decade which the film covers, his father grows more and more distant from his wife and children, finally abandoning them altogether. Cui's distant relationship with his family mirrors his failure to connect with fellow performer Yin Ruijuan (Zhao Tao), with whom he has a tentative relationship.
Reminders of poverty and Communist political repression are provided by a subplot involving Cui's cousin, forced to work in a mine, and brief elliptical scenes which refer to political executions and underground abortions; Jia totally rejects, however, the Fifth Generation filmmakers' epic sweep, instead appealing to the emotions. The characters remain blank, almost always impassive, uncommunicative. Jia's camera stays far away from them, either remaining objectively still and detached, or slowly tracking; there are few close-ups, and most shots are held for a very long time. He also removes the characters from each other, framing shots so they are separated by household objects, doorways, or walls. Usually this is unobtrusive, but occasionally it becomes a bit obvious and film-school cute, as in a sequence in which Cui and Yin pace around each other, taking turns disappearing behind a stone wall as they talk.
The real central character of Platform is the troupe itself, and the changes in Chinese culture which occurred over the course of the 1980s. As the film begins, the group is performing Maoist agitprop, leftovers from the Cultural Revolution. It soon becomes clear, however, that the Maoist hard line is a thing of the past, as some cultural and economic liberalization gradually begins to take place; the group is forced to privatize, taken over by a stern taskmaster named Song. They become influenced by pop music, discovering the Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, and eventually becoming the "All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band." Certainly, the particular musical references will have greater resonance for Chinese audiences, particularly those who came of age in the 1980s; they certainly have autobiographical importance for Jia, who has set the film in his hometown during the decade of his adolescence and young adulthood.
What does it all mean? Jia is elliptical and elusive, refusing to provide anything as straightforward as "messages." There is a sense in which popular culture expands the horizons of these provincial young people, giving them a sense of a world outside the Maoist slogans they've been taught to recite. Still, however, one cannot escape the sense that the new culture is banal, tawdry, and depressing: little more than a commodity. The performers look to the culture to rescue them, to provide them with meaning and solidity, but it fails, just as their hometowns, families, and romantic relationships have.
Platform contains one particularly memorable scene in which the troupe's bus has broken down in a bleak and empty desert; as they listen to the song "Platform," with its lyrics about "waiting forever," they tend a small fire and watch a train roll heedlessly by. It's a marvelous evocation of loneliness and ennui, combining a deeply rooted command of local detail with more poetic and universal themes. I admire Jia's refusal to cater to traditional narrative expectations, to use an abstract and seemingly impersonal style to get at deeper (and, for all of their surface coldness, deeply felt) truths. While Jia is certainly his own man, Platform reminds me of the art-film style that reaches its peak in the films of the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien: enigmatic, elliptical, and deliberately paced, refusing any direct revelation of meaning, exploring the space surrounding dramatic events rather than the events themselves. For me, Hou's films develop an overwhelming power gradually, almost subliminally, through the gradual accretion of lyrical detail; I never had a similar revelation with Platform, which left me admiring its formal rigor but, aside from the desert sequence, unmoved. Perhaps I'm just not familiar enough with Chinese popular culture; Jia's tableaux also seem to me more stolid, less poetically dense, and less graceful than Hou's. (As I write this, it also strikes me that Hou has not abandoned direct appeals to the emotions quite as severely as Jia has; for all of my admiration of his rigor, I guess I still find him a bit forbidding).
New Yorker Films presents the film in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer which is serviceably good; the colors are occasionally a bit dull, but never distractingly so. The booklet contains an insightful essay by Shelly Kraicer, as well as the text of an interview with Jia by critic Tony Rayns, a timeline of recent Chinese history, and a brief essay on the cuts that Jia made to the film after its premiere (it originally ran around three hours, and is now 150 minutes; Jia has said that he prefers the shorter version). The extras on the DVD include an interview with the director (different from the one in the booklet), in which he talks about the circumstances of the film's production and speaks rather eloquently about cinema as a personal experience, "a way to access our memories." (I would never deny that Jia intends the film to be a personal, emotional experience, even if he goes about it an unorthodox way and I am not always moved.) The DVD also contains about 20 minutes of unsubtitled behind-the-scenes footage. Without any context or sense of what the principals are saying, it just looks like a lot of people running around on a movie set to some unclear, but deeply felt, purpose; the booklet advertises this footage as "fascinating," although I could have done without it.
Jia has since produced two more well-received films, 2002's Unknown Pleasures and 2004's The World. Unknown Pleasures is available on a New Yorker DVD, while The World had a brief U.S. theatrical run earlier in 2005 and, one hopes, will be made available on DVD soon. His works, with their combination of political engagement and high-modernist detachment, will never have a very large audience, but cinephiles who like to be challenged would be well-advised to make the man's acquaintance.
The folks at New Yorker Films are commended for their continuing commitment to recent world cinema, even if they aren't quite working on Criterion's level.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Booklet Including Essay by Shelly Kraicer and Interview with Director Jia Zhang-Ke by Tony Rayns
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