Judge Joel Pearce found this film about as interesting as watching a movie of him watching it.
"Too bad I was born in Datong. If I had been born in a rich country like the U.S., I'd rob a bank."—Xiao Ji
Unknown Pleasures takes a close look at the current situation in many areas of China. It paints a picture of a people with hardly any money and no hope for success. As a result, many of them are living in a state of constant boredom. While it does an excellent job of showing that world, the film also has some flaws that prevent it from being a film that will appeal to a wide audience.
Facts of the Case
Bin Bin and Xiao Ji have nothing exciting in their lives. Because there is no work available, they have pretty much given up trying to advance themselves. Although sometimes one of them has an opportunity to move on with his life, something always seems to get in the way. Bin Bin does have a girlfriend, a younger student with whom he watches movies sometimes in a rundown motel room. Xiao Ji seeks a relationship with Qiau Qiau, a dancer who helps to advertise for a local liquor company.
Unknown Pleasures tackles a number of interesting social problems in a very unique way.
Perhaps the biggest issue is the interaction between the power structures of the Chinese society and the pathetic focus of this film, the disenfranchised poor who live in old abandoned factories. The characters of the film are unnecessary people to the economy, and have lost all sense of pride and hope. The media still promises them great things, however, through a variety of channels. The news reaches them through the television, telling them of exciting things happening just around the corner. Popular songs are sung by folk heroes with humble origins. Public announcements are made about the state lottery that promises fortune and fame. A local alcohol company puts on lavish events and offers free samples of its products in order to give the people a way to ignore their circumstances and get hooked on "Mongolian King." This continual message of excitement and hope has no connection to their lives, which mostly consist of following these promises and finding nothing.
Another influence on these characters is Western culture, filtered primarily through our fictional films. In this case, Bin Bin and Xian Ji have just seen Pulp Fiction, which seems to be their best link to understanding American culture. When they decide to rob a bank, they are partly emulating the first scene of Pulp Fiction. Whether intentional or not, this aspect of the film brings up an interesting issue for the North American audience of Unknown Pleasures. Obviously, this is a film that is meant to make some kind of statement about the current situation in China. However, the integrity of this film as an accurate depiction is damaged by the way these characters understand our culture through our films—Pulp Fiction is not even close to what we experience every day. It is so easy to believe that Unknown Pleasures is showing us what things are really like, but this use of Western culture acts as a reminder that things are never that simple.
Everything interesting that happens in the film happens through some kind of filter. There are a few scenes that take place at a Chinese Opera, but we only see it through a small window from the back of the theatre. Interesting things are going on in the news, but we only see it on the television. At one point, the announcement is made that Beijing will hold the 2008 Olympics, but we only see the reaction of the characters; the perspective never shifts over to show the announcement itself.
The cinematography and performances are good, although I found they took some getting used to. The performances feel very real, but in a strange, awkward kind of way. Sometimes when local people are used in films, they are so conscious of the camera that the effect of using real people is ruined. At first, I thought that's what was happening in Unknown Pleasures, but I think that first impression was wrong. Rather, they are acting like people who have not been given any direction, and are just sitting around doing nothing, unsure of their thoughts and actions. The film was clearly shot on digital video, and each scene is a continuous shot with a single camera. The camera does move, but it is largely stationary. For an audience used to the fast cutting of popular American films, to have the shots sustained in this way seems odd, and takes a level of attention and patience usually reserved for stage productions.
The problem with making a film about boredom is that it's virtually impossible to make it interesting. At first, as the setting and characters are introduced, it is fascinating to see this city that is completely without hope. As well, it is not very often that a movie comes out about bored, ordinary people. Most films focus on compelling people during key moments of their lives.
After a while of watching Unknown Pleasures, I was reminded why films almost always focus on the extraordinary. Watching people hanging around with nothing to do isn't any more interesting than sitting around yourself, and the moments of action in the film all end in anticlimactic ways. I realize that, as a critic, I should applaud the brilliance of this unconventional narrative, but by the end of the film I really was getting tired of it. I understand that the goal is to demonstrate the repetition and futility in these characters' lives, but after a certain point it becomes tiresome. One scene features Xian Ji attempting to get up a small hill on his motorcycle. It takes him two minutes. After a few seconds, I understood what the scene was trying to say. After thirty seconds, I realized that the scene was supposed to stand out and that I was supposed to think about it more. By two minutes in, I was checking my watch and jotting down that I wanted to check how long the scene had been after I was done the film. Many of the scenes are like this.
I am not recommending that anything could be done to solve this problem, as it is a problem that's inherent in the premise of the film. Maybe I am missing something in the film, but I am pretty sure I'm not.
Unfortunately, the presentation of the film on this disc is also quite disappointing. Films shot on digital video often have visual problems, and Unknown Pleasures is now my reference example of this. The image is anamorphic, which I suppose is good, but in this case it mostly just highlights how ugly the picture is. The whole image lacks richness and detail. It is not that the stock was desaturated in order to make the film look bleak, but rather that the picture looks washed out and overly bright throughout. There is a smorgasbord of digital artifacts, including edge enhancement, haloing, digital grain, and some particularly nasty ghosting whenever anything moves. It's bad enough that it seriously damages the cinematography of the film. I am sure that much of this is from the source print, but it is still a disappointment.
The sound is about the same. Since the film was shot with a single camera, outside noise often threatens to drown out the dialogue, and everything sounds hollow and tinny. Again, much of this must have come from the source, but it's unpleasant to listen to.
Some additional footage with interviews with the director would have been a very helpful addition to this disc. Sadly, there is nothing on the disc to provide us with any further context for the film. There is a trailer, though, which somehow almost succeeds in making Unknown Pleasures look like a thriller.
The interesting ideas that come out of Unknown Pleasures make it a worthwhile film for anyone interested in societal issues and Asian culture. However, the unconventional delivery and slow pace of the film makes it hard to recommend to anyone else. With the repetition and odd dialogue, there were times when I felt almost like I was watching absurdist theatre. If that description makes you more intrigued about giving it a try, go for it.
Not guilty, but only because I think Unknown Pleasures is out of my jurisdiction.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Theatrical Trailer
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