Issue: 2010: Vol. 9, No. 2

Visualizing China in Transformation: The Underground and Independent Films of Jia Zhangke

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Shu-chin Wu

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Shu-chin Wu, Ph.D. teaches history at Agnes Scott College, Atlanta, Georgia. 
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Visualizing China in Transformation: The Underground and Independent Films of Jia Zhangke In China, Jia Zhangke’s films, like other underground (dixia) and independent (duli) films, are more accessible in the little-known film clubs in big cities like Beijing and the living rooms of film critics and scholars than in movie theaters. Although underground and independent are terms fraught with problems and contradictions, here they are used to indicate the non-mainstream, alternative films made in contemporary China that are produced outside the state censorship and studio system and films that contain alternative trends and aesthetics1. Among Jia’s six feature films that are now available in the United States, three were blocked from domestic screening in China by the state censors. Outside of China, the reception and impact of Jia’s films are very different. Jia has attracted attention at international film festivals in Venice, Cannes, Tokyo, and New York. His first “underground” feature film, Xiao Wu (aka The Pickpocket, 1997), after winning a top prize at the 1997 Berlin Film festival, was shown in four French theaters and reportedly topped the French box office for four weeks2. Martin Scorsese liked the style of this film so much that he praised Jia for “reinventing cinema.”3 Jia’s “above-the-ground” independent feature film Still Life (2006) won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. Jia has been wooed by foreign critics and scholars and is regarded by them as one of the most original and talented contemporary Chinese filmmakers. Dudley Andrew calls Jia “a poet of cinema,” while Jonathan Rosenbaum compares Jia to the Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jancso, and Stephen Teo invokes Raul Ruiz to explain the quality of Jia’s films. On March 5, 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York began a full retrospective of Jia’s films, making Jia the first Chinese filmmaker to have an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art in more than 20 years.

While some underground and independent Chinese films acquire their popularity abroad by being openly subversive of China’s state authority, the films of Jia Zhangke are of a different nature. Even though Jia’s films are politically very significant, he does not posit himself as a dissident opposing the Chinese state. Nor does he center his films on political criticism. His films aim to reach beyond ordinary politics and portray the encompassing reality of Chinese people and society4. Jia also is not interested in melodramatic treatment of historical traumas and national allegories, as are his predecessors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, two Fifth-generation filmmakers who made Chinese films known overseas in the 1980s by centering on these themes. Viewing the films of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and others prompted Jia to make films because, he said, “I still haven’t seen a single Chinese film that had anything to do with the Chinese reality that I knew.”5

The reality that Jia knew is the massive transformation–rapid social changes, economic forces, and cultural shifts-that resulted from the Open Door policy and the Four Modernizations initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. All of Jia’s films illustrate this great transformation that China is going through in the “here and now” (dangxia), with its internal contradictions and its victims-underclass, rural, marginal people (xiao renwu) who not only do not benefit from the promise and hope of the sweeping economic and societal development but have become alienated from and lost in it.

Two films of Jia Zhangke that best capture the power, ironies, problems, and contradictions embedded in China’s economic reform and social transformation are Platform (Zhantai, 2000) and Still Life (Shanxia haoren, 2006). Platform, considered as Jia’s most ambitious film, is set in the director’s birthplace, Fengyang, a small hinterland city in the poverty-stricken Shanxi province in northern China. The narrative of Platform traces the evolution of the lives of members of a “performing arts troupe” (wengongtuan) as they experience and negotiate the difficult and constantly changing reality under Deng’s market reforms. The protagonists are two couples; all four of them are members of the performing arts troupe. They are young and idealistic. As the performing arts troupe changes from a government sponsored work unit to a private band, their idealism is confronted with the cruelty of reality. One couple suddenly breaks up as the other couple goes through long estrangement until a final union at the end of the film. It is important to note that Jia’s interest is not so much in the plot development of the characters. Rather, he is interested in the subtle human effects of economic and social change.

In the opening scene, we see a group of people in the theater waiting to see the play “The Last Train to Shaoshan,” being put on by the performing arts troupe. In the background is a big diagram labeled “Diagram for New Rural Development.” It is 1979, shortly after Deng Xiaoping achieved political dominance and announced the new economic policies in the Third Plenum in December 1978. The opening scene signifies change. The members of the performing arts troupe are low-status, young, rural cultural people who work for a government-sponsored cultural unit. The “new rural development” introduced capitalist economics to China’s countryside and left groups like the film’s performing arts troupe without any choice but to become privatized. It is ironic that the train, a symbol of industrialization, prosperity, and China’s future, is only heading for Shaoshan in the fictional play. Shaoshan is Chairman Mao Zedong’s birthplace and one of the holy places in socialist China. For the characters of Platform, living under Deng’s market reforms, the destination of the symbolic train is not socialism but a peculiar kind of capitalism called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” whose nature is dynamic and unruly and whose social consequences are unpredictable and somehow unsettling.

In the span of 12 years (1979 to 1991, the time during which the film is set), we see China’s radical transformation through the transformation of the performing arts troupe. Platform presents a Chinese reality that focuses on the marginal and the quotidian. As Jia expresses, “What I really want to focus on is, over the course of this transformation, who is paying the price? What kinds of people are paying the price?”6 In this film, through many small, ordinary moments, we see the members of the performing arts troupe as marginal people who struggle in the increasingly commercialized rural economy. They are cultural workers who are not very skilled or clever and who live in Fengyang, geographically distant from the centers of reform. Their marginality makes them vulnerable in this fast-changing society.

One scene in particular conveys the sorrow and status of their struggle. Toward the end of the film, in a scene set in the middle of the dusty road connecting Fengyang to its neighboring cities, two of the performers dance on the open bed of their transport truck while cars and trucks swiftly pass by. The name of the troupe at this time has been changed from Fengyang County Rural Cultural Work Team to Shenzhen All-stars Rock and Break-dance Electronic Band. The new name reveals the awkwardness of the place in which the troupe finds itself in the new world: their dream of being the stars of Shenzhen, a special economic zone that booms and modernizes under Deng Xiaoping’s economic policies, is a stark contrast to their reality. The social results of market reform for the members of the performing arts troupe are a lost past, a fictional present, and an unknown future. They are the people who pay the price during the course of great transformation.

Still Life, like Platform, focuses on the reality of the marginal and the quotidian as it manifests the consequences of China’s economic and social transformation. It is set in the ancient town of Fengjie, known for its rich ancient culture and magnificent scenery that inspired beautiful verses from Tang poets Li Bai and Du Fu. Today, Fengjie has also become known as a site of China’s controversial Three Gorges Dam project, one of the largest man-made projects in human history, and one that has caused immense human destruction, including the relocation of 1.4 million people as well as large-scale ecological destruction. Jia Zhangke estimates that by the time the shooting of Still Life began in 2005, two-thirds of Fengjie, with many of its archeological and historic sites, had been submerged under water.

It is characteristic of Jia Zhangke not to dwell on the controversial subject of the Three Gorges Dam. Instead, he uses ordinary, rural, marginal people (xiao renwu) and their everyday lives to represent the reality of Fengjie. In contrast to the Chinese state’s claim that the Three Gorges Dam is a great social and economic success, what Still Life directs viewers to see in the film is ruins upon ruins. This prompted the famous film scholar and critic Cui Weipin to declare that ruins are the real protagonist in the film 7 .

Ruin is a recurring motif in Jia’s films. In Still Life, ruin has a multilayer of meanings. Jia uses the journey of the protagonist Han Sanming, a migrant worker who left his coal-mining job in Shanxi to become a demolition worker in Fengjie to search for his runaway wife whom he purchased illegally 16 years earlier, to illustrate the meanings of ruin. First, Han’s demolition job leads us to witness physical ruin everywhere: demolished factories and buildings, abandoned houses, concrete blocks, broken bricks, and scrap metal. There also is the ruin of communities. Fengjie is a lost community: the house of Han’s ex-wife under water, like the houses of many others in Fengjie, and, as a result, she has to leave town and work as a bonded slave on a boat. A group of demolition workers also decides to leave town because they are paid only RMB 50-60 a day for demolition jobs in Fengjie, while coal miners in Shanxi are paid RMB 200 a day. Nature, too, is ruined. A powerful scene illustrates the ruins of nature when Han lifts up a RMB 10 bill and compares the printed picture of Kuimen on it against the actual renowned landscape. The water on the actual landscape is significantly higher than the picture on the RMB 10 bill!

In Jia’s films, China’s market reforms and its grand state projects such as the Three Gorges Dam have affected the marginal, powerless rural people and their everyday lives. The troupe’s traveling and changing status in Platform and Han Sanming’s journey to Fengjie in Still Life can be seen as metaphors for China in transformation. The social and cultural consequences of this transformation are ruins everywhere: ruins of nature, ruins of human habitations, ruins of communities and relationships. Jia uses predominately non-professional actors, naturalistic filming environments, long takes, wide-angle compositions, and synchronized recording without noise filtering to depict the ordinary, powerless rural people who are left behind by China’s economic development. To borrow from Colin MacCabe’s discussion of realism, Jia’s visual depiction of China’s reality is not just a rendering of reality but the rendering of a reality that is made more real by the use of aesthetic device.8 The true merit of Jia’s films, even more than the use of aesthetic device, is his genuine, humanistic concern and affection for his characters: the xiao renwu of China. His love for his characters is the essence of his films and the source of his art, and it is what makes him the poet of China’s underground and independent cinema.9


  1. For a critical examination of the contradictions and problems in the terms “underground” and “independent,” see Paul G. Pickowicz and Yingin Zhang (ed), From Underground to Independent: Alternative Film Culture in Contemporary China Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield, 2006).
  2. Yingjin Zhang, “My Camera Doesn’t Lie? Truth, Subjectivity, and Audience in Chinese Independent Film and Video” in Paul G. Pickowicz and Yingjin Zhang (eds.), From Underground to Independent: Alternative Film Culture in Contemporary China (Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield, 2006), pp. 37-38.
  3. Michael Berry, Xiao Wu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures: Jia Zhangke’s ‘Hometown Trilogy,’ (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), p.8.
  4. Scholars have different opinions about the “political” question in China’s underground and independent films. The question of the “political” is unsettled mainly because of different conceptions of politics. This question is mentioned in the “Preface” in From Underground to Independent.
  5. “In Conversation with Jia Zhangke,” in Michael Berry, Speaking in Images (New York: Columbia University, 2005).
  6. Li Xudong, Zhang Yaxuan, & Gu Zheng, Jia Zhangke dianying: Zhanti (The Films of Jia Zhangke: Platform) (Beijing: Zhongguo mangwen chubanshe, 2003), 191.
  7. “Sanxia haoren: guli, bianqian yu Jia Zhangke de xianshi zhuyi” (Still Life: home, change, and Jia Zhangke’s realism) in Ouyang Jianghe ed., Zhongguo duli dianying fangtan lu (On the Edge: Chinese Independent Cinema) (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2007), 245.
  8. Colin MacCabe, “Theory and Film: Principles of Realism and Pleasure,” Screen 17 (3), 1976, 79-92.
  9. Dudley Andrew calls Jia the cinema of poet and Jonathan Rosenbaum calls him a poetic prophet.