Arlecchino Cinema > 15:00


Jia Zhang-ke
Introduced by

Jia Zhang-ke (in video)


Sunday 30/08/2020


Original version with subtitles


Film Notes

Jia Zhang-ke’s affectionate but dispassionate account of the downfall of a terminal loser is one of the most impressive and achieved Chinese films of the 90s. Made on a shoestring budget with an entirely non-professional cast in Jia’s hometown, it’s another vindication of ‘underground’ independent film-making in China and a career-making triumph for its first-time director. The film offers an astutely observed and meticulously detailed vision of life’s material surfaces and social transactions in order to intimate what’s happening beneath those surfaces. Fenyang is a typical northern Chinese backwater, a ramshackle provincial town in which an unsophisticated community clamours to embrace the benefits of a free-market society, from entrepreneurialism and rebuilding to karaoke bars and hair and beauty salons. […] But Xiao Wu is a man out of tune with his times, an overgrown child who fails to grasp the implications of the police crackdown on street crime and doesn’t understand why a former friend who has gone straight might no longer want to know him. By choosing to centre the film on this hapless sad-sack, Jia shifts the film away from social observation and on to darker psychological ground. […] Xiao Wu’s decline and fall don’t occur in a vacuum, but Jia nowhere suggests that he’s a victim of social change or an index of what happened in China since Mao’s death. His fate is specific and singular. Nor is there any sense that Xiao Wu gains self-awareness from his own misfortunes; the film is not an ‘improving’ moral tale. But the juxtaposition of Xiao Wu’s abasement with the clear-eyed perception of a society in the process of losing its bearings gives the film a curious, hard-to-pin-down purity and makes the spectacle of Xiao Wu’s sad end strangely exalting. This is what makes the film not only Bressonian but also worth mentioning along Bresson. It wouldn’t work as well as it does without the naturalistic performances or Yu Lik-Wai’s cinematography (a small miracle of ‘informal’ formal control). But it’s Jia Zhang-ke’s ability to find spiritual truths beneath everyday surfaces that makes the result so special.

Tony Rayns, ‘Sight and Sound’, n. 3, March 2000

Cast and Credits

Scen.: Jia Zhangke. F.: Nelson Yu Lik-wai. M.: Yu Xiao Ling. Scgf.: Liang Jing Dong. Int.: Wang Hongwei (Xiao Wu), Hao Hongjian (Mei Mei), Zuo Baitao, Jinrei Ma, Junying Liu, Liang Yonghao, Qunyan An, Jiang Dongdong. Prod.: Jia Zhangke, Li Kit Ming per Top Clever. DCP. Col.