Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke may already be well-known to cineliterate Western audiences for his 2006 film Still Life or, perhaps from his effort two years later, 24 City (2008). A pivotal part of the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers, Zhang-Ke’s confrontational films present a more gritty and realistic portrait of his home country than the more mythological works of his forebears. Released this week in a brand new DVD collection by UK distributors Artificial Eye are the director’s first three films: Pickpocket (Xiao Wu, 1998); the acclaimed Platform (Zhantai, 2000); and Unknown Pleasures (2002).
His debut feature Pickpocket very much sets the tone for those that would follow. Taking as it’s main character a poor lowly pickpocket Xiao Wu (Hongwei Wang), it traces the slow descent of this petty crook whilst also focusing, in passing, on various aspects of Chinese society. The audience sees different sides of the protagonist in an array of social contexts as the films tone shifts; from lost friendship and honour amongst thieves, through a romantic entanglement, to a very real snippet of family life.
In his appreciation of the artistry inherent in stealing, Hongwei Wang’s Xiao makes his first appearance as a kind of alter-ego for Jia and does so again as a frustrated artist in Platform. With Fengyang once again the backdrop – or at least the point of inception – the film gives a somewhat panoramic view of China in the 1980s. A group of youths involved in the Peasant Culture Group form the lens through with the countries great social reforms take place. As western influences grow in the rural regions, the group goes from performing state-sponsored propaganda to pop music once privatised. Although considerably more expansive that Pickpocket – and receiving higher acclaim – this is a more meandering tale.
If Platform shows the beginnings of media consumption by the youth of the 1980s, then Unknown Pleasures shows a country saturated with it. The film portrays the youth of this China as being almost entirely governed by mass media; be it computer games, the news, or popular music. Interestingly, his alter-ego pops up again in this film, but is perhaps representing a disconnect that Zhang-Ke, at this point, has begun to feel with the young people of his country.
Although his films can be slow and at times drift a little in focus, they always have something interesting to say and in his career outside of state filmmaking, Jia Zhang-Ke is an important voice in modern Chinese cinema. These less than polished first three features are certainly worth checking out for those that have not done so already.