Out One

28 September–13 October 2006

The jury is still out whether cinema is a “window to the world” – yet “masking” it rather than “framing” it (André Bazin) – or if it is made of “fragments extracted from the real” that operate a cut within the real (Eisenstein). The best of contemporary cinema is haunted by this question, which it why it is profoundly rewarding to attend the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), in which the selection of films is made in a way that fosters such reflection. The VIFF is one of these rare events in which seasoned film critics with an acute point of view – Mark Peranson, Tony Rayns – are given full curatorial responsibilities. In this report, I will attempt to outline how three filmmakers belonging to different generations – Jacques Rivette (born 1938), Ann Hui (born 1947) and Jia Zhangke (born 1970) have attempted to articulate and stage this dilemma. The VIFF also presented the work of another filmmaker, Pedro Costa (born 1959), whose take on this issue is of particular acuity, but Costa deserves a text devoted to his entire oeuvre, which will come later.

It is Difficult to Touch the Real

As reality shows clutter the airwaves, and transparent editing has arrogantly become the norm in mainstream cinema (even when syncopated, MTV-fashion, it’s supposed to reproduce “the rhythm of things as they are”), the relationship between cinema (by this I mean the art of the moving image in general) and reality has never been so tenuous. The “apparatus”, the means of production and the complex interaction between production units, distribution networks and publicity outfits that form “the industry” are now the real “subject” of representation. We don’t see people, we gaze at movie stars; we don’t discover Venice, but a simulated version of it, in which a vintage building can collapse without causing us too much sorrow (by the way, I loved Casino Royale, but I didn’t think it would increase my knowledge of foreign places); we admire (don’t we?) the editing, the framing, the exquisite gamut of colours, the art direction, the special effects, the stunts, how well she could cry on cue, how his muscles were more defined than in his last pic. This is not new, of course. The heydays of pre-WWII Cinecitta, the golden era of the Hollywood studio system, produced synthetic fantasies for which the beautiful word “escapism” was coined. Artificial worlds were the norm – from German expressionism to Biblical epics to musicals to the claustrophobic streets of film noir (reconstructed in studio) to Sternberg’s flamboyant decors to Hitchcock’s purposefully phoney sets. When Renoir arrived in Hollywood, he stupefied everybody by insisting to shoot Swamp Water (1943) in a real Louisiana swamp. The stubborn Frenchman, who never fitted within the studio system, actually started a trend, and shooting on location gradually became the norm.

Times were a-changing, and so was the technology. The war effort, once over, dumped on the market hundreds of 16 mm cameras that had been used as surveillance material. Wait a few more years, and a bunch of young people took hold of them; they coined another term, “cinéma-vérité”, and thought that the kind of documentary they were producing would rival Hollywood productions. That was not to be – as spectators still preferred a good narrative with recognisable stars over stories, no matter how fascinating, happening to unknowns. The most commercially successful vérité films featured celebrities: the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, John F. Kennedy. Hollywood was taking note – and with the greater portability of cameras and sound recording equipment, enthusiastically jumped into “location shooting”. By then we were in the late 1960s/early ‘70s, and the veil of illusions was being torn. The Vietnam war was ending, but too late already. Students were demonstrating all over the world, changing not the political situation (they all failed there) but the culture of the Western world (the real “cultural revolution” took place in Paris, Berkeley or Munich, not Beijing – we know now that it was a masquerade, a plan masterminded by Mao to get rid of his political opponents within the Party, not a spontaneous uprising of youthful creativity). All over the world, people were talking about “the New Hollywood” – a film industry that would be accountable to the reality of its time. And yet – the man who wrote and directed American Graffiti (1973) was also, a few years later (1977), the architect of the Star Wars franchise. French classical theory likes to talk of cinema as a field defined, on the one hand, by the “Lumière tradition” (documentary realism), and, on the other, by the “Méliès tradition” (the creation of fantasy worlds) – and lovingly see-sawing between the two extremes. Another fond idea is that, no matter how artificial it first appears, with the passing of time, every film becomes a documentary – of the youthful body of a woman long aged and dead, of Hollywood fashion in the 1940s, of furniture design in middle-class homes in the 1950s, and, in the case of glimpses, no matter how brief, to real cities, as a record of perpetually changing urban landscapes. (1)

The dialectic between “fiction” and “reality” has never been an easy one, each seeming to encroach on the other, yet each needing the other to function. Yes, “the Real” is “a construct”, yet it is also, as Lacan pointed out so forcefully, a “left-over” (reappearing under the overlapping circles of the Imaginary and the Symbolic), something that reasserts itself brutally and functions as “a trauma” for the subject. (2) And “the Real” has a way of seeping back into the most carefully constructed fictions, and Lacan noted that it is always in its relationship to the Real that fantasy functions (ibid). Meanwhile, fiction is always ready to “haunt” the most vérité documentary, or, to borrow an alluring concept used to describe a Chantal Akerman retrospective, documentary has the propensity to “border on fiction”. (3) Dutch documentarist Johan van der Keuken (1938–2001) was fond of saying that “every time you point a camera at something, you generate fiction” – and he was keenly aware of how problematic reality is: “It is difficult to touch the Real”, he said in the conclusion of one of his most beautiful films, The Way South (1981). In an earlier text, he comments on the often-quoted sentence of Godard in Le Petit Soldat (1960): “Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times a second.” “This is not true”, he writes. “The fragmentation which we create in the contemporary conception of editing… corresponds to the tentative movements of consciousness – that switches to-and-fro between different levels of reality… [A film] is not the representation of a three-dimensional reality, but rather the creation of an independent space through the ‘temporal elements’ within the film.” This is the result of “the freedom and incertitude that we have inherited from cubism” – and van der Keuken defines Eisenstein’s montage as “cubist” adding, sarcastically: “meanwhile the majority of films – including modern films – are still at a pre-cubist stage” (he wrote this in 1967, but the observation still stands). (4)

Paris, post-68 stasis: Noli me tangere

Rivette shot Out One in 16 mm in the last years of the 1960s, as France – disconcerted, wounded, exhilarated – was taking stock of what had happened to her during the months of May–June 1968. There was no “experimental filmmaking” as you had in the US at the time, and la Nouvelle Vague was working in 35 mm. The smaller format connoted reportage de télévision – as 16 mm cameras were the norm in the television industry. The events of May ‘68 had also prompted another Nouvelle Vague filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, to experiment with formats: Ciné-Tracts (1968), Un Film comme les autres (1968), One American Movie (1968), British Sounds (1969) and the films of the Groupe Dziga Vertov (1969–71) are all shot in 16 mm (and, in 1975, with Numéro deux, Godard would start to explore video). The reference there was “militant cinema” as well as the American cinéma vérité and the British direct cinema – i.e. a certain form of “catching” and addressing the Real. For Rivette – interestingly enough since, in a recent interview, Rivette admits that he does not own a television (5) – 16 mm was used as a specific reference to television, an off-the-beaten track position if any. In the 1960s and 1970s, the editorial board of Cahiers du cinéma was suspicious and contemptuous of the new medium. Une esthétique de télévision denoted that a movie was not “really a film” (most international cinephiles still hold that position). Godard threw a real bomb by investing television as early as in 1976 with Sur et sous la communication. Serge Daney also sought to go beyond the self-imposed limits of cinephilia by devoting a regular chronicle to television when he left Cahiers for the daily paper Liberation. (6)

In L’Amour fou (1968), which chronicles the disintegration of a couple as the husband (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) is staging Racine’s Andromaque and the wife (Bulle Ogier) slowly drifts into madness, Rivette alternates between 35 mm and 16 mm, the latter representing the footage shot by a television crew documenting the rehearsal process. This was the second time Rivette was using a theatre rehearsal as a structuring device: in his breakthrough film, Paris nous appartient (1958) – which is as much a “paranoid” portrait of Paris in its time that Out One was to be, ten years later (7) – Rivette has a group of people rehearsing Shakespeare’s Pericles. In Out One we are privy to the travails of two theatre companies – one, directed by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), is at work on Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound (with a detour through Shelley’s 1820 poem, Prometheus Unbound, explored in its original English text), the other, a collective with an alternation of “leaders”, is preparing, amidst much psychodrama, another Aeschylus classic, The Seven Against Thebes. The 16 mm format, though, was not a tool designed to document the work of the actors, but was dictated by the mode of production of the film. (8) It had been commissioned in serial form by the ORFT (Office of French State Radio and Television) – yet when the television executives saw the 8-episode, 743 minutes of the finished “product”, they couldn’t make head nor tail of it and rejected it. (9) Rivette then edited a 255 minute version of the film, Out One: Spectre, which had a modest commercial run in Paris. The original version, Out One: Noli me tangere has remained mostly invisible, apart from a screening in Le Havre and one in Rotterdam. So the VIFF presentation was a true cinematic event. (10)

The rehearsal scenes are filmed in extremely long shots, lovingly capturing the most minute facial expressions, hesitations, drops of sweat, body movements of the actors. If someone ever took seriously the position that narrative cinema is a documentary on the actors, it is Rivette. There are splendid moments in Noli me tangere, not the least being a sort of nervous breakdown experienced by Michael Lonsdale who cries and regresses into near-infancy. During the entire film Lonsdale has been depicted as both a mastermind and a victim of his “alternative lifestyle” – bossing his actors through a series of psychodramatic exercises (breathing, improvising, touching, exploring and free-associating about different versions of the text), nonchalantly alternating between several women (a testimony to the impact of Reich’s “sexual revolution” ideas on some fringes of French society at the time), dressing down (slacks, T-shirts, Afghan jackets) to partake in a bohemian lifestyle, yet available to associate with his friends from the upper-crust society (high civil servants, businessmen, lawyers) with whom he may or may not be involved in another sort of theatrical “game” – the hidden plot inspired by Balzac’s Histoire des Treize in which 13 individuals form a secret society to achieve power.

Yet, in a moment of crisis, when internal strife within the group forces him to give up the production of Prometheus, he seeks shelter in a seaside house owned by his group of friends. There, the last scene of the film (shot in three takes) shows him lying on the sand, alternatively crying and laughing, like a little boy, in a powerful, unrestrained performance resulting from improvisation. Lonsdale was not “Lonsdale” yet, the one we remember, the love crazed Vice-Consul “screaming her name of Venice in deserted Calcutta” as Marguerite Duras directed him in India Song (1974), the one who asserted his quiet, ironical authority in films by Buñuel, Eustache and countless international productions. The inimitable voice is not there yet – it is more banal, less sonorous, with less musical overtones; the face is still on the angular side; the body is not as powerful and round. What is happening in front of our eyes is the slow, painful process of Lonsdale-becoming-Lonsdale, and it’s truly fascinating.

Out One

Something of “the Real” is therefore captured in the most artificial sequences of all – rehearsals in enclosed space, where, through improvisation techniques, the participants are basically asked to enact their fantasies. The film interweaves these “different levels of reality” van der Keuken was alluding to. Intersecting, sometimes with violence, with the lives of the theatre groups and their elusive “13 friends” (it is never clear whether or not the Bande des Treize exists or is the by-product of a desultory, after-hours conversation concluding a good meal and a few bottles of wine), are two perfect outsiders, Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Frédérique (Juliet Berto). They both live “on the margins” – Colin panhandles in cafés by pretending to be a deaf-mute, while Frédérique uses her charm and her incredible stock of ready-made lies to get (or steal) money (or valuable letters) from men. Sometimes she also gets beaten up. There is nothing romantic about these two characters – they are actually the symptoms of the deep societal crisis that affected France in the last 1960s. As Jean-François Bizot, the editor of the “counter-cultural” magazine Actuel once said: “We were taught as children ‘not to write in the margin’. We joyfully jumped ‘in the margins’, and some of us got lost.” Indeed many young bourgeois embraced marginalisation – only to find themselves, a few years later, the well-paid gurus of the New Culture – but lower middle-class and working-class kids did so as well, and for them the stakes were higher. Colin seems to come from a rather modest family, and nothing is known of Frédérique’s background (except that some of her character may have been inspired by the real life of Juliet Berto, who had broken up with her family). Her tragic fate – she’s a loner, unattached, and dies almost accidentally – reminds us of some of the remarks uttered by Léaud in this other great portrayal of Paris in the early ‘70s, Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain (1973) – about “these girls we used to know in the [Latin] Quarter, and who have disappeared now.”

Colin and Frédérique (who don’t know each other and only meet once) become serendipitously involved, intercepting or being given messages or letters pertaining to the mysterious “Treize” – yet they remain on the margins – Frédérique as a perpetual outsider who appears and disappears in people’s gardens, on rooftops and in public squares, Colin as a romantic victim. The thread of the mysterious messages leads him to the chic hippy boutique owned by Pauline (Bulle Ogier) and he falls hard for her. Pauline is interested at first, but caught up in her own life which involves a large, posh apartment, two adorable children, a nanny and a mysteriously disappeared husband, Igor, who may have been a member of the “Treize”. The cruelty of class differences is quietly reinstated. In his despair, Léaud has the strength to break away from his fascination: “This ‘story of the Treize’ was sheer adolescent fantasy. A hoax. And even an ideologically incorrect fantasy.” (This is the one time Rivette pays homage to the political jargon of the post-68 era). He continues saying that he did not find love, and almost died, that he asked the question to the Sphinx but didn’t get an answer, because the story of the Treize was “a badly asked question [that] prevent[ed] him to find reality.” So if the Balzacian plot was the “wrong story” – what was the story that could have allowed the protagonists to find reality?

As Out One is a multi-layered work that takes great pleasure in toying with the spectators expectation and lose them in a labyrinth, I’ll play the game too and follow four possible answers:

Answer 1. All narrative structure is a hoax, a mask to reality. This is more or less how Jonathan Rosenbaum interprets Rivette’s position in his insightful analysis of the film: “On the deepest level, he is expressing an anguished agnosticism toward all fiction, directing a frightened stare into the face of intractable reality.” (11)

Answer 2. Mise en scène as storytelling. If anything, Out One asserts itself as a splendid portrait of Paris and some Parisians at a certain time of history. In his notes for the VIFF catalogue, Mark Peranson compares the film to a novel by Proust, and this is particularly accurate if one follows Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of A la recherche du temps perdu, noting that the entire cycle of books is nothing but the exploration/interpretation of signs that are specific to a certain “world” or coterie, are organised in circles and overlap occasionally. (12)

The protagonists of Out One are constantly trying to decipher the signs created by the mise en scène, and the audience share their quest. How to read the body of an actor during rehearsal? How to interpret the ambiguous clues pertaining to the “Histoire des Treize”? How to understand, via words or facial expressions, what an old friend really wants, or tries to tell you? When he is with Pauline, Colin scrutinises her face and body for signs on how she feels about him; but she’s better than him at this game: his desire is transparent, while she hides her own behind what may be nothing but the acute consciousness of her class, cloaked behind her devotion for her missing husband. When an amicable young stranger, Renaud, joins the theatre collective and then disappears with a large sum of money, the members of the group investigate the neighbourhood from which he may have come from, trying to decipher the urban landscape, looking for traces of his hypothetical presence, for clues. Colin does not “find” Pauline (as Marcel does not marry Gilberte, having misinterpreted a sign she had given him) and the actors do not find Renaud (but Frédérique finds him instead – as well as a rare moment of protracted erotic tenderness, and, indirectly, her death).

The whole city becomes the site of a Treasure Hunt, or, as one of the characters (played by Rohmer) gently reminds us, of the “Hunting of the Snark”. It may indeed, be child’s play, adolescent fantasies, a “game in which to get caught up” as the fashionably-dressed lawyer (Françoise Fabian) points out (at the very moment when she confesses her desire to keep playing the game, and even to revive it if some players are tired of it). (13)

Answer 3. The real stor(ies). Born in 1928, Rivette received a classical education – but that is not enough to explain his fondness for plays inspired by Greek mythology. Two plays provide a backbone around which the other diffracted narratives gravitate. The Seven Against Thebes shows Polynices, one of Oedipus’s sons, waging a war against his brother Eteocles who had usurped the throne of Thebes. The two brothers slew each other, opening a royal road to another tragedy, that of Antigone, who will perish for having buried her brother Polynices against the orders of Thebes’s new King, Creon. Prometheus Bound, the story of the Hero who defied Zeus to steal fire and give it to men, only to be tied up to a rock and tortured by a vulture, became a major source of identification for romantic writers, and represented well this defiance toward authority that had sparked the 1968 rebellion. Yet, as in The Seven, the rebel suffers, and the image of his suffering overlaps with another major Western myth, that Crucified Christ.

Myths are not a way to escape reality, as anthropological research has made it clear; (14) on the contrary, because reality is both brutal and mysterious, they represent an effort of the mind to rationalise it, to explain it, to control it. From the chaos of the intersecting lives represented in Out One the myth emerges – and if Thomas has a final breakdown it’s because he has to give up putting the myth on stage. His grand scene is intercut with short vignettes of Colin, the true iconoclast since he had “unbound” himself from the “Histoire des Treize”, going back to his familiar cafés, passing again for a deaf-mute for money. The myth is dead – what’s left is everyday “reality” – but it does not really make any sense, and it’s not pretty.

Answer 4 – Noli Me Tangere. “Touch me not”, said the Resurrected Christ to Mary Magdeleine who wanted to “make sure” the Messiah was really back – rather than being an illusion. Once translated, the sentence uncovers a plurality of meanings. Beyond its religious connotations, it alludes both to the desire to touch (articulated in the theatre groups improvisational exercises) and the horror of being touched (which makes it difficult to connect to another human being, a theme very dear to Rivette). Touch me not, silently pleads Pauline to the love-struck Colin. Touch me not, implies, in turn, the missing Igor to Pauline (who, in her anguish and frustration, dreams that Igor is strangulating her).

Touch me not also encapsulates the subject’s relationship to the Real – so difficult to touch, noted van der Keuken. Because it is elusive. Because the Real is the Other(s) and that there will always be a gap between us. Because the Real is Sacred. Prometheus and Christ seemed to be on the opposite side of the fence – the first was bound for having defied Zeus, the second crucified to uphold the Law of the Father – but maybe, if one follows a different logic, it was to atone for the sins of the Father. May 68 was depicted by many, including Jean-Paul Sartre as “the murder of the father” (… of the grand-father, added some witty commentators, considering the age of General de Gaulle, the then-President). Yet, at a superficial level, May 68 only ended in strengthening the authority of the government. The changes that happened remained underground, “bound” within the cultural and sexual sphere for many years. Yet a formidable tidal wave had taken place. Noli me tangere – touch me not, for you know not what you have done. Nobody knew – and a lot of stupidities were written about “the legacy of May 68”. Nobody knew, because the changes were too brutal, too extreme, yet too ambiguous. Facing the truth may have been blinding (shades of Oedipus).

In Out One: Noli me tangere, Rivette used a formidable tool – a made-for-television 16 mm camera he pointed at a bunch of actors/friends he respected, and at a city he loved. A camera that would allow him to shoot in long takes (some lasting up to 13 minutes) and to follow the improvisational rhythm of the action. He never faced head-on the trauma of May 68 (Noli me tangere) – but he composed one of the most accurate expressions of his time. One of the most real. Yet it was a reality that didn’t exist before the camera was turned on – a reality-in-process. Like, maybe, the unconscious didn’t really exist before a concept was coined to analyse it – and then it became our reality. Because you have to ask the right questions (at the right time), to find out what is behind the veil of illusions.

Shanghai, post-modern times: the carnavalesque as reality

The Post-Modern Life of my Aunt

Tony Rayns has been unwavering in his support of the work of Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui, and, in his VIFF catalogue program notes, he writes that The Post-Modern Life of my Aunt (Yima de Houxiandai Shenghuo, 2006) is [Hui]’s “best made-in-China film yet”. I wholeheartedly share Rayns’s assessment, and I believe that some of the lukewarm reactions received by the film come from its stylistic audacity: weaving a fiction around the character of a 60-something woman, Mrs Ye Rutang (played by the formidable Siqin Gaowa, who does not shy away from embodying a character a few years older than herself) (15), she expresses themes of loneliness, the brutal encroaching of modernity, the secret wounds of history through a certain form of female carnavalesque – which may make some spectators uncomfortable. Chinese comedy in general (often revolving around bodily functions as well as situations of social embarrassment) does not successfully “cross over” to Western markets – with the noted exception of Stephen Chow, because he’s quite good at merging comedy and kung fu. Yet Chinese humour is often male, which colours the jokes made at the expense of women. In The Post-Modern Life of my Aunt, Hui, a respected female director known for the rigour (and a certain classicism) of her mise en scène unfolds this rare kind of female humour in which the miseries of aging the body are affectionately made fun of: arthritis, baldness, menopause, weight gain, sexual loneliness. With this, she breaks a taboo, and for this reason this still-overlooked film will remain a landmark.

Like her colleagues of the short-lived Hong Kong New Wave of the late 1970s (Tsui Hark, Yim Ho, Allen Fong, Patrick Tam), Hui started her career in television, shooting sync-sound in 16 mm (while the practice of the film industry at the time was to record all sound in post-production). Escapist cinema (martial arts, musicals, romances) was uttering its swan song, and young wolves were hungry for a “realistic” representation of the Crown Colony; they wanted to tell the many stories that were happening every day, present the faces of the common people on the screen. Hui cut her teeth first as an assistant to King Hu, then joined the commercial station TVB in 1975 to make documentaries and TV dramas; in 1977, she directed a remarkable series of “fact-inspired” hour-long films for the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC); then in 1978 she made three films for the series Below the Lion Rock taking place in a working-class housing complex and produced by Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). (16) She completed her feature debut with The Secret (Feng Jie, 1979), a thriller that managed to exquisitely capture the ordinary life and geography of the wooded neighbourhood of Pokfulam. Since then, Hui’s trademark has always been a loving, intimate representation of Hong Kong’s urban reality, even when borrowing the tropes of the horror film, as in Visible Secret (Youling renjian, 2001). In her semi-autobiographic film, Song of the Exile (Ketu Qiuhen, 1990), she describes the powerful shock she experienced upon returning to Hong Kong after studying in London: “I found work in a TV station. For the first time I came into close contact with the people here. I looked at their faces intently and listened to their voices.”

Yet, for most Hong Kong people, the territory is only the tip of the iceberg – as the majority are recent or second generation immigrants from mainland China. Hui herself was born after the chance meeting of her Chinese father and Japanese mother in war-torn Northeastern China, and she became one of the first Hong Kong directors to make films in the mainland with The Romance of Book and Sword (Shujian Enchou Lu, 1987). Since then Hui has directed four films in China, most notably an adaptation of a novel by Shanghai novelist Eileen Chang (Zhang Aileen), Eighteen Springs (Ban Sheng Yuan, 1997) and the story of a female cop, Goddess of Mercy (Yu Guanyin, 2003). In an insightful article about Hui’s work, Lo Wai Luk notices that it often revolves around the trope of a motherless child, and that this, in turn, leads to the metaphor of Hongkongers as “adults without motherland” (17) – explaining the specific flavour of the films she directed in or about China. Hong Kong residents can be considered as the bastards of Mother China, or, conversely, the children she rejected or who rejected her, seeking refuge in this bastion of capitalism.

In Summer Snow (Nüren Sishi, 1995), Hui had drawn the powerful, lovely portrait of a working-class mother/wife/daughter-in-law living in Kowloon’s New Territories. Superbly interpreted by the great comedian Josephine Xiao Fong Fong, her heroine was funny but never ridiculous. Song of the Exile was a profound meditation on a mother/daughter relationship, yet from the point of view of a daughter looking for her bearings. With The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt, her most radical character study of a woman to date, she gradually enters the mind of her protagonist who, presented at first as a harmless “auntie” lost in the shuffle and bustle of modernity, turns out the be a bad mother, and, ultimately, an orphan of Chinese history.

First of all, it should be noted that the film is, proudly, a pan-Chinese production. Based on a novel by Yan Yan (about whom I was unable to find any information, but I assume to be a female Chinese writer), the screenplay was written by Li Qiang, who had penned the highly successful Peacock (Kongque, 2004) by Gu Changwei. The two DPs are both from Hong Kong: Kwan Pun Leung had already collaborated with Ann Hui, Stanley Kwan and Wong Kar-wai; and Yu Lik-wai, a filmmaker in his own right, is better-known for having shot all of Jia Zhangke’s work since Xiao Wu (1998). The sound engineer is the great Tu Du-chih, famous for his long-term collaboration with Hou Hsiao-hsien and a number of “New Taiwan Cinema” luminaries. The producer, Er Yong, is Chinese, and has worked with Jiang Wen, Zhang Yan, Gu Changwei and Chen Kaige. In addition to Siqin Gaowa, the cast includes Hong Kong idol Chow Yun-fat (in the resolutely non-heroic part of a smiling con man with a taste for opera but plagued with loneliness and guilt), Taiwanese actress Lisa Lu (who had won a Golden Horse for her portrayal of a chaste widow in Tang Chu Shuen’s The Arch, Dong fu ren, 1970), and the young Chinese “hot star” Vicky Zhao Wei.

The patent message is clear: reuniting all of China’s talent under one prestigious film. Hui immediately introduces some fissures. She takes her camera to real locations in Shanghai – but does not show the colonial era architectural treasures, nor the flawless steel-and-glass wonders of late. It’s a city shot at street level, in crowded markets and narrow streets, or in the foul-smelling staircases of tenement buildings, where residents witness, with a mixture of awe and suspicion, the noisy progress of a modernisation in which they no longer fit. Educated, proper, pristine, Ye Rutang tries to maintain a façade of respectability and kindness, while working hard to make a living. Her Oxford-accented English is no longer in demand with the parents of the kids she tutors, her sense of ethics is constantly violated by the holiest-than-thou airs of her hated neighbour, Mrs Shui (Lisa Lu), and then Mrs Ye meets with a series of tragi-comic mishaps that precipitate her downfall. First her teenage nephew is dumped on her; not only is the kid unbearable, but he associates with a female semi-juvenile delinquent with whom he plots a false kidnapping to extort money from “Auntie”. A young woman Mrs Ye befriends and shelters turns out to be a con artist. But the most “scandalous” aspect of the story lies in the heroine’s dalliance with the moustached Pan Zhichang, symbolised in the film’s publicity by a shot of Siqin Gaowa and Chow Yun-fat in bed, smiling. Feminists were rejoicing: at long last a Chinese film showing an older woman’s sexuality and her relationship with a younger (and charming) man!

The Post-Modern Life of my Aunt

What made viewers really uncomfortable is that the much expected “love affair” between these two myths of cinema occupies a rather brief amount of screen time and is shown as a series of funny or embarrassing moments: Chow Yun-fat crying in memory of his mother’s cooking, or admitting he hadn’t had sex in a really long time; Siqin Gaowa showing at a date with her new lover at a swimming pool entirely covered in a red-knit bathing suit (“I have arthritis!”) that starts bleeding in the water; the couple hiding in the staircase to eat a large watermelon to avoid the neighbours’ gaze, and accidentally killing Mrs Shui’s cat; and, the last straw, the revelation that Mr Pan has conned Mrs Ye of her life savings.

Chow Yun-fat’s soulful performance and Hui’s masterful direction endows this potential cliché with a bitter-sweet overtone: more than a villain, Pan Zhichang is himself a victim of modernisation – a poet at heart, he is a social and economic failure who has to resort to petty schemes to survive – and despises himself for it. The worst is that he seemed to have been, if not in love with, at least genuinely fond of Ye Rutang…. Until then, the film had kept a fine balance between absurdity, slightly grotesque situations and moments of melancholia. It takes a very interesting turn with the arrival of Dafan (Vicky Zhao Wei), the angry daughter Mrs Ye hasn’t seen in years.

Here Hui leaves the narrative tropes of the urban comedy to reconnect with hidden layers of a more poignant reality. An “urban educated youth”, Ye Rutang was brutally forced out of the city of her birth to be sent to Shanxi Province. There, she eventually married an uncouth worker, but, as soon as the Cultural Revolution was over, she left husband and child to return to Shanghai. Unfolding its psychological and historical complexity, The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt, like a “Chinese box”, has multiple layers and multiple meanings: it turns out to be, for Mrs Ye, the last steps of a tragic failure. Upon returning to Shanghai, she could never fit again in the city she had left years before. After her last setback, she decides that the only thing for her to do, is to return to an unloved ex-husband and an embittered daughter and sell vegetables on the market in the cold city of Anshan.

In The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt Ann Hui uses the artificiality of a comedic genre – broad humour, caricatures, exaggerated details, semi-grotesque situations, recognisable stars – as a way to gain access, painstakingly, to the heart of a tragedy experienced by millions of Chinese people. Some of them were once beautiful teenage girls, whose youth, sex appeal and desire for romance were swept away during the Cultural Revolution. In Dafan’s sulky-but-sexy appearance, Mrs Ye finds a distorted mirror of herself. History is played first as tragedy, and then replayed as farce. Deserving a full critical re-appraisal, The Post-Modern Life is a remarkable, insightful work – in which “the Real” reappears in coda after having successfully eluded not only the viewer but the protagonists themselves. After a life-time of running away from Anshan, Mrs Ye has been caught back by something they pitifully call “progress”.

China, the Three Gorges Dam: the meaning of still life

When interviewed at the time of Unknown Pleasures (Ren Xiao Yao, 2002), Jia Zhangke acknowledged that the project had started as a video documentary about disused industrial buildings and that it ended as a fiction film. (18) Jia’s commitment to show “Chinese reality without distortion” (19) has been unwavering since his first short film, Xiao Shan Goes Home (1995), and in his still-brief-but-illustrious career, he has gone to and fro from fiction to documentary, most notably for the latter with the splendid short, In Public (2001). (20) His fiction films are shot in a documentary style – using long takes and resorting to improvisation with non-actors improvising their lines, no rehearsals and the action “captured” in one take if at all possible. (21) Wang Hongwei, who played Xiao Shan and Xiao Wu and has appeared in virtually all of Jia’s films, was a film theory student. Jia discovered his “star”, Zhao Tao, an award-winning dancer, during auditions for Platform (Zhantai, 2000); so far, she has acted only in his films. Han Sanming, who has appeared in Platform, The World (Shijie, 2004), is one of the two main protagonists in Still Life (Sanxia Haoren, 2006) and appears briefly in Dong (2006), is a coal miner from Fenyang (the role he plays in Still Life – he also happens to be a cousin of Jia Zhangke, who was born in Fenyang, the site of his first three features).

Jia has long been an advocate of digital media, seeing in them a way of “liberating” Chinese independent cinema, in more ways than one, and eventually favouring them over 35 mm. (22) Like Unknown Pleasures, Still Life started as a documentary, when Jia accepted an invitation from the painter Liu Xiaodong to go with him to the Three Gorges Dam area, where he was planning a series of monumental paintings. Now a noted artist on the international market, Liu (nicknamed “Dong” which also means “East”) is known to lovers of Chinese cinema for having starred in a slight fictionalisation of his own life (when he was young, unknown and penniless) in Wang Xiaoshuai’s landmark “Sixth Generation” film, The Days (Dongchun de rizi, 1993); later he was the art director for Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards (Beijing Zazhong, 1993). Upon arriving in the Three Gorge Dam area, “the reality here brought me into a trance,” says Jia, “looking at the ruins left after the dismantling and the lands that were to be submerged and the soaring new towns in the distance… When shooting… the documentary, looking through the viewfinder and watching the people… I started imagining their lives outside the scene.” (23) In a way, Jia didn’t find his subject but his subject found him. What is original in his approach is that, instead of transforming the documentary into a fiction film, he shot both of them at the same time, fictionalising the documentary, ever so slightly (Han Sanming became a sitter for Liu and ended in one of the paintings) and anchoring the narrative into the reality he was discovering.

Built on the Yangtze River, the Three Gorge Dam is the world’s largest dam and China’s most ambitious architectural project, one that has changed the geography of the area forever. The construction started in 1994, ended up in May 2006, but the dam won’t be fully operational till 2009. Millions of people were displaced (the statistics are far from being perfect), as hundreds of towns and villages and cities were flooded. One of the first filmmakers to address the issue was Zhang Ming with In Expectation (aka Rainclouds over Wushan, Wushan Yunyu, 1995), describing the intersecting lives of four people as they are expecting their city to be flooded – and since then quite a few documentaries have been made.


Liu Xiaodong’s subject was the demolition workers that came from all over China to work, and were living in precarious and paradoxical conditions. Instead of leaving the area, they were coming in looking for work. Yet Liu chose to represent them during their moments of leisure, gambling and smoking in their underwear. Similarly, the fictional volet of the diptych shows two people coming to the Three Gorges area for reasons of their own. Like Colin and Frédérique in Out One, they are unrelated to each other and are extraneous to the main “plot” (the building of the dam). Like them, they have to absorb, comprehend and make sense of a reality that threatens to overwhelm them. What is fascinating in both Still Life and Dong (as it was, mutatis mutandis, in Out One for Rivette) is that the act of discovering and organising “brute reality” is done, simultaneously, by the protagonists, the painter, the filmmaker and, hopefully, the audience.

Still Life starts with three long circular shots, assembled through wipe-outs so as to give the impression of a single take, on the deck of a ferry (a loudspeaker announcement later identifies it as “the Yangtze ferry from Fengjie to Chongming Island”). The deck is bustling with people, young and old, men and women, who are eating, smoking, fastening their luggage, reading text messages, gambling or trading jokes. Obviously the scene was shot as a documentary, on a real ferry carrying real migrants. Han Sanming’s singular figure (he is short, stocky, balding, most often in his white undershirt and looks dead serious but has, at rare moments, an engaging smile) only appears at the end of the pretend “one-shot-sequence”, as he is gazing at the river. This is followed, in classical découpage, by a POV shot of the spectacular view offered by the river.

As Sanming disembarks, he is ushered into a landscape of sheer desolation, and quickly introduced to the shady lifestyle of the river bank, where cottage industries pop up to cater to the needs of the transient population. A con artist tries to take his money, a young punk with bleached hair rents his services on motorcycle to take him places – without warning him that the address he is looking for has been flooded long ago. A grandpa, Mr He, rents rooms to the demolition workers; a middle-aged female neighbour offers “girls”. On the buildings that are standing up a sign announced that they will be flooded too, when the water rises to 156.50 meters. Finding a demolition job, Sanming walks though mounts of nondescript rubble, half-demolished buildings and pitiful remnants of the lives that once unfolded there (a scroll still hanging on a derelict wall.

The second narrative strand introduces us to a young nurse from Shanxi (Zhao Tao) looking for her construction engineer husband, Guo Bin, who she hasn’t seen in two years. In her quest, she goes through a series of dilapidated warehouses and factories, or posh buildings that host the new headquarters of the company. She is helped by an archeologist (Wang Hongwei) whose job is as futile as they come, since it has been estimated that over 10,000 archeological sites will be lost forever under the water.

Gradually, the quest of each of the protagonist reveals its psychological complexity. Sanming eventually asserts that he’s only looking for his wife, “Missy Ma” (a former child bride, bought in the area for 3,000 yuans who had ran away from him) as a way of reconnecting to the daughter he hasn’t seen in 16 years; yet, when he finally meets “Missy”, there’s no longer talk of finding the daughter (who is working somewhere “down south”) but of earning enough money to get the ex-wife out of the virtual bondage in which she has been reduced to pay for her brother’s debts. On the other hand, Mrs Guo seems genuinely distraught at her husband’s estrangement, but, when she finds him, it is to announce that she has fallen for somebody else and wants a divorce.

The texture of the film is also multilayered. Specific, “realistic” details abound. The nurse is carrying a plastic bottle of water, which she is constantly drinking from; when the bottle is empty, she fills it up at one of the samovars/water fountains that you can find in many public spaces in China. Ten years ago, bottled water was a rare commodity in China; now it is as ubiquitous as in California, acting as a potent signifier of globalisation and urbanisation. The demolition workers, this transient working class, are never seen with plastic bottles. They are the leftovers of the country’s access to capitalism, trapped in a space in-between, still rooted in earlier modes of production, yet the agents of the march toward “progress”. They drink beer, hard liquor or tea.

Drinkable water is an antique problem in China – the tea culture was basically invented to give taste to boiled water (as drinking unboiled water could mean death). The fate of the city of Fengjie is entirely dependent of water – half of it already submerged, the remaining streets oozing with moisture, creating an unhealthy, wet atmosphere; the water retained by the dam is probably polluted as well. The nurse’s “signature” gesture (drinking from her plastic bottle) is a form of denial of reality; she has nothing to do with the level of water in Fengjie; she refuses to be “contaminated” by the situation. On the other hand, globalisation is perceived in the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, that even the poorest workers carry with them. When Sanming loses track of his best buddy, “Mark”, who has promised to meet him after a “mission” he has accepted to “beat up a guy” on behalf of some triad “boss”, it is the unanswered ring of the phone that allows him to locate the body, under a pile of rubble. Bottled water and cell phones together, however, denote urbanisation – as in the case of the nurse, and, more tellingly, in the shot with which Jia chose to start Dong: Liu on a boat arriving in Fengjie (much more comfortable than the ferry carrying Sanming) talking on his cell and having a bottle of water in front of him – one of the many correspondences between the two films.

In Still Life, Jia breaks down the diegetic flow into four “chapters”, named after small treats that the characters exchange as a way of “reaching out”: cigarettes (given by Sanming to the men he meets in Fengjie, especially to “Mark”); liquor (offered by him to his ex-brother-in-law, Ma, who refuses it); tea (found by the nurse in an old locker where her husband used to store his personal belongings); and finally “toffee” (also translated as “candy”) that Mark distributes to his posse of men before the “mission”. These modest items seem to appear randomly in the story and increase the feeling of serendipity. By contrast, Dong is organised in a more linear fashion, as it follows Liu at work on the two parts of his major project, Hotbed, one taking as sitters demolition workers in Fengjie, the other young sex workers in Thailand. The transition is done simply, with a shot of Liu on the boat sailing the Yangtze, cutting to another of him on the Mekong. Yet, as the “exchange of gifts” is the hidden structure of Still Life, it is the work of the painter (his gaze, his selection of sitters, his mixing of the paints, his wide brush strokes) that gives Dong its backbone.

Still Life

The two parts of the Hotbed project are made of giant canvases of five panels each. In his customary style, Liu emphasises the fracture between each panel, rather than giving a feeling of continuity: the background is slightly different, lines extending a body or an element of the décor are broken, as in a cubist painting. Like Still Life, Dong is filled with shots of rubble and demolition, dwarfed by the sight of the mountains at a distance and the powerful river. Following Liu as he walks through the ruins, falls asleep on a couch or in a boat, the first part of Dong shows men at work with axes and picks to tear the buildings down, sanitation workers disinfecting the rubble, and some of these images are the same as in Still Life, or seem to be excerpted from the same sequence of events, but at different moments. A shot, showing a wall collapsing inward as Sanming is passing by, reproduced in both films, is followed in Dong by a simple document of the ensuing tragedy: three demolition workers (followed by Sanming) carry a motionless body wrapped in a red-and-green cloth on a stretcher. This shot has a strange resonance in Still Life. Sanming pays homage to Mark’s dead body, wrapped on the stretcher in the same red-and-green cloth. Later, four demolition workers, followed by Sanming, carry the stretcher to a boat on the river…

There is no difference in the way the documentary and the feature film is shot. In Dong, a van filled with workers narrowly misses the next departing ferry, and the camera pans over the vehicle, looking through the windows at the men silently smoking and waiting. This scene could have belonged in either film. The main difference is at the level of the soundtrack – which seems to be entirely sync sound in Dong – with a few, brief moments in which the painter addresses the camera – in contrast with the rich aural texture of Still Life. The air is filled not only with offscreen sounds of demolition, which interrupt or give a new resonance to key emotional moments, but with all sorts of music: romantic pop songs, opera – sometimes diegetically explained (we see opera troupes, or singers entertaining the workers), sometimes not, as if an invisible radio was playing in the distance. As Jia seems to follow Eisenstein’s principle of the film shot as a “fragment torn from reality” (except that it’s a “long-take-fragment”), his work on the soundtrack brings whatever we can grasp of “the Real” onto the plane of the Imaginary. The music opens a perspective toward the hidden dreams of the workers, the displaced populations, the girls left without home nor work, toward the secret meaning of the protagonists’ quest.

Particularly telling is Sanming’s friendship with “Mark”, who has adopted this name because he identifies with the character played by Chow Yun-fat in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (Yingxiong Bense, 1986). Their meeting takes place in the collective sleeping quarters rented by Grandpa He, while the famous scene of Mark lighting his cigar with a $100 bill played on a television monitor. Sanming offers a cigarette to “Mark”, extends his lighter to him, and the latter, jokingly, lights a 10 yuan bill with it. Later this bill will be shown as depicting a famous scenic spot in the Yangtze River, and we’ll see Sanming gazing longingly at the sight.

Jia uses these pieces of music, these modern mythologies, the circularity of signs and symbols (cigarettes, toffee, banknotes) to cast a doubt on the reality of what we see – and occasionally introduces an unexplainable fantastic element into the film. Upon arriving in Fengjie, the nurse gazes distractedly at a UFO-like object crossing the sky. Later, one hot and sweaty night she has accepted the archeologist’s hospitality, unable to sleep, she fans herself, walks around, and eventually hangs a little T-shirt to dry. As she turns her back to the view from the balcony, a strange-looking construction that was looming in the landscape is suddenly sets ablaze and shoots off in the air, like a spaceship. Neither occurrence is explained or alluded to in the diegesis….

Jia has always insisted that Still Life and Dong be shown together, at least in festival and alternative screening contexts – being undoubtedly quite aware that with the diptych the relationship between document and fiction that is haunting his work had reached a new level of crystallisation. In his films, “patience produces fiction” (24) as Bernard Eisenschitz beautifully writes, which also means that “reality” acquires this strange quality of being staged. The model around which the last two films are patterned is not photography, but painting – “realistic” painting indeed, yet nonetheless a reinterpretation of “the spectacle of the world”. The last minute choice of Still Life as an English title for the presentation of the film in Venice (25) (the original title was Good Folks of Three Gorges) is quite indicative of the direction taken by Jia: “Once I walked into someone’s room by accident and saw dust-covered articles on the desk. Suddenly it seems the secret of still life fell upon me… Still life represents a reality that has been overlooked by us. Although time has left deep marks on it, it still remains silent and holds the secrets of life.” (26) Reality is gone, all that’s left are traces, signs (the ring of Mark’s cell phone after the man’s death…), remnants, left-overs, ruins. Yet, something else emerges. The last shot of Still Life shows Sanming looking at a tightrope artist crossing the Yangtze against a pale sky – a beautiful, useless, mysterious feat. In the diptych composed by Still Life and Dong, fragments of reality are indeed torn into the texture of the films, but subsumed into a Real structured by an artist’s gaze.


  1. About this topic, see Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice (eds), Screening the City, Verso, London, 2003 and Thierry Jousse and Thierry Paquot (eds), La Ville au cinéma – Encyclopédie, Paris, 2005.
  2. See in particular Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans, Alain Sheridan, Hogarth Press, London, 1977, Chapter 3.
  3. Kathy Halbreich and Bruce Jenkins (eds), Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1995.
  4. Johan van der Keuken, Aventures d’un regard – films – photos – textes, Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1998, p. 31, translation mine.
  5. “I don’t own a television, which is why I couldn’t share Serge Daney’s passion for TV series”. “The Captive Lover – an Interview with Jacques Rivette” by Frédéric Bonnaud, Senses of Cinema, Issue 16, 2001.
  6. The first of these articles were edited together in a book: Serge Daney, Le Salaire du Zappeur, Ramsay, Paris, 1988.
  7. As Rivette’s work is not widely shown, I would encourage the reader to consult Saul Austerlitz’s article in Senses of Cinema.
  8. Rivette was to return to the 16 mm format with Le Pont du Nord (1982), also for reasons linked to the mode of production of the film. At the last minute some of the financing fell through, and unable to afford 35 mm stock or lighting equipment, Rivette designed another loose paranoid fiction, set in the streets of Paris in which Bulle Ogier plays a woman recently liberated from jail and who has become claustrophobic – so she has to remain outdoors.
  9. Similarly, in 1967, the ORTF has commissioned Godard’s Le Gai Savoir – only to reject (and ban it) after its completion in 1968.
  10. Plans seem to be brewing about a possible release of the film in DVD.
  11. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, p. 146 (text initially published in 1974).
  12. Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs (1964 PS) trans. Richard Howard, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2000.
  13. Françoise Fabian appeared in Louis Malle’s Le Voleur (1967), Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) and was the alluring heroine of Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud (1969) before continuing a brilliant international career both on film and television.

    Jean-Pierre Léaud started his career in The 400 Blows and was François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel for about 20 years and continued working with him (Two Englishwomen and the Continent, 1971 and La Nuit américaine, 1973). He made 9 films with Jean-Luc Godard and 3 with Olivier Assayas, worked with Pasolini (Porcile, 1969), and was an unforgettable Alexandre in The Mother and the Whore. He also worked with Jerzy Skolimowsky, Catherine Breillat and Tsai Ming-liang. See Philippa Hawker: “Jean-Pierre Léaud: Unbearable Lightness”.

    Juliet Berto (1947–1990), the muse of the French counter-culture of the May 68-era, was in Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) and collaborated with him and Jean-Pierre Gorin in the group Dziga Vertov; she worked with Alain Tanner and Joseph Losey, and made several films with Rivette: Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and Duelle (1976); she became a film director in 1981 with Neige and completed three other films, Cap Canaille (1983), Hâvre (1986) and Damia – Concert en velours noir (1988/TV) before dying of cancer.

    Bulle Ogier started her career with Marc’O’s Les Idoles (1968), made a number of films with Rivette, including L’Amour fou, Céline and Julie Go Boating and Le Pont du Nord, and was an unforgettable Salamandre in Alain Tanner’s film (1971). She worked with Fassbinder, Eduardo de Gregorio, André Téchiné, Marguerite Duras, Philippe Garrel, Manuel de Oliveira (starring in his latest opus, Belle toujours, 2006) and made a number of films with Barbet Schroeder, to whom she is married.

    Out One is filled with the best French actors of the time – including an always piquante Bernadette Lafont (who had started her career with Truffaut’s Les Mistons in 1957, was Marie in Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge in 1958, starred in Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate in 1969, Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me for Truffaut in 1972 and in La Maman et la Putain), as well as a number of filmmakers, critics and personalities orbiting around the Nouvelle Vague and Cahiers du cinéma crowd (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Michel Delahaye, Eric Rohmer, Bernard Eisenschitz, etc…)

  14. The work of Claude Lévi Strauss was extremely popular in intellectual/artistic circles in France throughout the 1960s.
  15. Born in 1950, the Mongolian actress Siqin Gaowa was revealed by her role in Ling Zifeng’s Rickshaw Boy (1982), then in a series of Hong Kong movies – Yim Ho’s Homecoming (1984) and The Day the Sun Turned Cold (1994) as well as Full Moon in New York (1989) by Stanley Kwan, who devoted a documentary to her, Siqin Gaowa Special (1993) – and a number of high-profile mainland Chinese productions such as Xie Fei’s Women of the Lake of Fragrant Souls (1992).
  16. See Shu Kei, “The Television Work of Ann Hui” in Li Cheuk-to (ed.), Changes in Hong Kong Society Through Cinema, Urban Council/Hong Kong International Film Festival, Hong Kong, 1988, pp. 47–52.
  17. Lo Wai Luk, “A Child without a Mother, An Adult without a Motherland: A Study of Ann Hui’s films” in Law Kar (ed.), Hong Kong New Wave – Twenty Years After, Provisional Urban Council/Hong Kong International Film Festival, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 65–71.
  18. “Originally, I just wanted to show the factories and warehouses which were built in the 1950s–60s and are now derelict. But gradually the idea of introducing characters took shape. I was able to develop the project thanks to DV [digital] cameras, which allow for quick decisions, flexible use and saving money.” From “Jia Zhang-ke, cinéaste”, an interview with Jia by Jean-Michel Frodon, published in Le Monde, May 25, 2002, quoted in Kevin Lee, “Jia Zhangke”, Senses of Cinema.
  19. From Samuel Douhaire, “Far from the Mandarins of Beijing”, Liberation, May 25, 2002, quoted in Lee, ibid.
  20. On this film, see Bernard Eisenschitz’s “Passerelles”, Cinéma 03, Paris, Spring 2002, pp. 5–22, and my own article, “Cutting Edge and Missed Encounters”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 20, 2002.
  21. On Jia’s working methods, see Stephen Teo, “Cinema with an Accent – Interview with Jia Zhangke, director of Platform”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 15, 2001.
  22. In China, the rules of censorship are less stringent for digital and video productions than for 35 mm. Unknown Pleasures was shot in DV. Jia returned to 35 mm for The World (Shi Jie, 2004), because it was shot in collaboration with the Shanghai Film Studio, a crucial step in China’s new acceptance of formerly underground filmmakers whose work was systematically banned (see Valerie Jaffe, “Bringing the World to the Nation: Jia Zhangke and the Legitimation of the Chinese Underground Film”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 32, 2004). Both Still Life and Dong are shot digitally.
  23. Jia Zhangke, production notes for Dong.
  24. Bernard Eisenschitz, op. cit., 15.
  25. Still Life was awarded the Golden Lion.
  26. Jia Zhangke, program notes for Still Life.

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

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