The City Between Performance and Reality

Maria Dimitrova on Chinese cinema’s urban generation

Text by Maria Dimitrova

“America has lost her Twin Towers,” a guide observes in Jia Zhangke’s 2004 film The World, “but we still have ours.” Set in the real-life World Park in Beijing, a theme park of shrunken replicas of cultural wonders from the Eiffel Tower and Taj Mahal to the Manhattan skyline, the film turns its location into a poignant and acid metaphor of modern China, stuck between the broken dream of socialism and a furious catch-up game with the West. Peopled by young characters from the provinces who make a living as dancers, camel drivers and security guards amid the simulacra of a world they will never be able to visit, the film lifts the curtain on the complex global and often breakneck reality behind China’s economic “miracle”.

Undergoing the fastest development of a middle class in history and in the throes of skyrocketing urban and industrial growth, China’s engines have been at full throttle in its, to quote current premier Li Keqiang, “modernisation drive” since the 1980s, magnetising cities with promises of "Western standards of living." In a speech to British think tanks in June, Li proudly stated, “It took Western countries over 100 years to achieve industrialisation, while China has instituted a full-fledged industrial system in just a couple of decades.” Yet that growth, underpinned by the cavernous gap of economic inequality and the slapdash construction of nightmarish architectural developments meant to warehouse multitudes of peasants often forced off their land, has left whole groups of people to fall, as if off a grid, into the margins of China’s new vision of urban reality. China’s practices of symbolically re-situating the city in the world, or what anthropologist Aihwa Ong calls its “art of being global”, have become the terrain of comparative borrowings and appropriations, from architectural mimicry (sometimes of entire cityscapes) to mass-manufactured replicas, all meant to signify China’s fast rise as a 21st-century cultural and economic superpower. It is the human cost of that speed, however, and the failures of its promises that have left hundreds of millions of migrants in a similar meta-practical predicament to that of Jia’s characters, performing China’s global vision while unable to live it.

Part and catalyst of a new wave of Chinese cinema that emerged in the 1990s, Jia, along with Lou Ye, Jiang Wen, Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yuan and others broadly grouped and identified as the Sixth or “Urban” Generation, set the foundations of independent filmmaking critical of the effects of the rapid pace of reform and turbo-charged urbanisation of the past two decades. Evading state-censorship policies after the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, they have employed neorealist and cinéma-vérité techniques to document the underside of the accelerating rural-urban socioeconomic divisions of the “new China”. Tracing the seismic changes associated with economic disparity and forced migration, they explore the anti-romantic realities of urban life. As Yale film professor Dudley Andrew writes of Jia, “At a certain point in time, [he] was able to catch this group of 200 million people who are living somewhere in between, people who don’t even have roots anymore in their homeland, who are not really welcomed in the city but are required to be there.” Like the characters in The World, they are neither heroic nor tragic figures, but rather part of the floating population trying to grow with the changing world but unable to keep up with it. They are characters who try to move from one world to another, either from city to city or within the places they live, but end up caught between the swiftly buried past and fantasies of a yet-to-arrive future of political reform and social equality.

At a time when the Chinese city threatens to outpace our understanding of it and Chinese society seems to exist in a permanent “now”, it is cinema’s “function as memory”, in Jia’s words, that gives it a particular power to see into the gaps between the performed and real state of the present. Challenging the official narrative of China’s progress, Sixth Generation films engage with the shared memory of the post-Cultural Revolution generation, from depicting the idealist university culture of 1989 to including period-authentic fashions, pop songs and everyday bric-a-brac in an attempt to recreate the historical experience stifled by official party discourse and censorship practices. However, nostalgia is double-edged, especially when dangerously close to becoming the predominant mode of expression of recent history. Far from an exclusive concern of the Sixth Generation or, more widely, experimental and art cinema, memory writing and filmmaking proliferated in 1990s China and became part of the market-enhanced nostalgia that spins the past into innocent and idealistic personalised history. This continues today as seen in 2013’s biggest box-office hits, such as the capitalist success fantasy of American Dreams in China and Vicky Zhao’s university coming-of-age story So Young, which take selective tours through the 1980s and early 1990s. The latter is a particularly potent example when viewed in parallel with Lou Ye’s notorious 2006 picture Summer Palace, both depicting four friends going through university before and after the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. While So Young smoothes the edges of the drift and disappointment of postgraduate life as subjective experiences of the characters (never alluding to the events of 1989), Summer Palace sees its characters through the lead-up to Tiananmen and weighs the impact of its legacy on their fraying, failed futures. Needless to say, it was swiftly banned in China after its premiere 
at Cannes.

What also sets directors like Lou, 
Jia and the rest of the Sixth Generation apart is their articulation of history not through grand events but the mundane, sickeningly familiar life of the everyday. All of Jia’s films, for example, are set in a single unified time frame, without voice-over or flashbacks, a new, purist realism that abandons the privatisation and sentimental preciousness of memory to instead explore the political and social power of embedding momentous historical changes into the ordinary. His work evokes political theorist Laurent Berlant’s notion of “cruel optimism”, a concept that deals with “the dramas of adjustment to the pressures that wear people out in the everyday, and the longue durée” once crisis becomes ordinary. It is “about the blow of discovering that the world can no longer sustain one’s organising fantasies of the good life” without wearing out the need for these fantasies and the attachment to them in the face of their failure. It is in this context that Jia’s work in undoing the cultural fantasies of our era takes on its significance and interventionist potential. In The World, he follows people who try to manage the incoherence of their lives between performance and reality, trapped in ambivalent romances either within the constraints of the park or across the country, which might as well as be across the planet. The characters view their past with a certain nostalgia, for if World Park offers them precarious views of the future, their small-town childhoods belong to an obliterated past. Yet the film refuses melodrama, charting the characters’ feelings of instability and contingency via the camera’s distanced automatism. Close-ups and dialogue are replaced by long takes and slow camera movements that chart the characters’ cyclical daily lives against the panoramic backdrop of world simulacra, as if their subjectivity is entirely dictated and yet stultified by their cultural milieu and the collective transition of which they are part.

Similarly to The World, Platform (2000) follows a group of song-and-dance performers whose personal and working lives bleed into each other, this time set in the early 1980s in the landlocked county town of Fenyang (Jia’s hometown). The town’s inhabitants have never seen a train and it becomes a symbol of the imagined future, of the desire to link up with the rest of the world. Yet when the four main characters finally see one, it simply passes them by: life, of course, simply carries on. Jia intentionally emphasises this inertia and stillness with slow takes and tempo, as if purposefully countering the velocity of “progress” and transition. That suspension is felt even more strongly in Still Life (2006), a laconic but poignant portrait of Fengjie, a small town on the Yangtze River, which is slowly being destroyed by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Telling the story of two people who have returned in search of their spouses, only to find empty lots strewn with the rubble of demolished neighbourhoods and similarly decomposed (or altogether vanished) remnants of what their marriages used to be, the film shifts from documentary realism to surrealist moments digitally spliced together with “real” footage. A UFO streaks across the sky and a building flies off like a rocket with no explanation, perhaps to suggest it is no more extraordinary than what has happened to the Three Gorges or the official statements of what the area is supposed to become. Jia’s fantasy-induced realism opens up the possibility that the real is unreliable and the visible is imagined. These phantasmagorical yet visually realistic images in Still Life allow Jia’s cinema, as Hong Kong academic Ackbar Abbas writes, to “work in the gap between the visible and the intelligible”, suggesting that only by such means can China’s “spectral” socialist history and its continued presence in the country’s turn to globalisation be evoked.

The World was Jia’s fourth feature, but the first he made with official approval from the government-controlled Film Bureau and produced with the help of the state-backed Shanghai Film Studio. Contrary to their “underground” status in 1990s, many of the Sixth Generation torchbearers have undergone a transition from “underground” to “independent” and become more embedded into the system that their films often harshly repudiate. This perhaps comes as little surprise considering the dizzying changes in Chinese film production, which since the 1980s has been transformed from state-owned propaganda tool into fast-growing industry, expanding 125 per cent between 2005 and 2011. And with the Chinese box office now the second biggest in the world after North America, the country’s place in the global film market is no longer possible to ignore. Unlike Fifth Generation filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou, who have cosied up with the government, Sixth Generation directors rack up film-festival acclaim abroad, but continue to negotiate their position within the complex power structure of both state-controlled cinema and the global cinema market.

This friction transcends matters of genre and distribution; it is part of a larger balancing act played out by China’s film industry and directors making politically critical films that still remain within the bounds of legal filmmaking. Jia’s latest film A Touch of Sin serves as a good example. With storylines based on widely discussed but censored events and political scandals in China – from the covered-up 2011 Wenzhou high-speed train accident that killed 40 people to the suicides at factories run by Foxconn, an Apple subcontractor – the film was co-produced by Shanghai Film Group, indicating that it passed through the stages of script approval long before production. After receiving the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2013, the film was one of the most talked-about Chinese productions in the West, but despite hopeful expectations for an official release in China shared by Jia in several interviews, it has not yet been allowed a domestic theatrical release and has been shunned in the press. It is perhaps less surprising from an outside perspective, considering the film sees Jia’s previously melancholy aesthetic replaced with violent episodes inspired by classical wuxia (martial-arts films) in which the oppressed take bloody revenge on their persecutors. Jia’s ingenious use of stylistic violence is threatening precisely because it transcends purely aesthetic purpose, revealing it instead as the natural outcome of the wider social and political circumstances into which these characters are thrown. Setting the film’s four loosely connected stories in and between Guangzhou, Chongqing and Wuhan, some of China’s fastest growing cities, and portraying the characters as part of the vast migrational multitudes that populate them, the films’ violence has almost an element of cautionary tale, an oblique road sign before a crash.

As the Chinese film industry is gearing up to topple Hollywood by replicating its genre-driven narratives and spectacles, the liminal space that Zhangke and other urban generation directors occupy is becoming increasingly contested. While receiving criticism from the avant-garde sidelines for blunting their political edge, they have yet to reach an audience outside urbane, art-film cliques, least of all an audience akin to the people who populate their films: the dispossessed multitudes on the margins of China’s boomtowns. With censors letting little besides mindless romantic comedies and costume extravaganzas make it onto the theatrical circuit, Jia and other contemporary directors often find themselves trapped in a similar predicament to the characters of The World, only looking in, rather than out, to an unreachable world. §