Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Platform (2000)

Platform (2000) ****
Directed by: Jia Zhangke.
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Tao Zhao (Ruijuan), Jing Dong Liang (Zhang Jun), Tian Yi Yang (Zhong Pin), Wang Hong-wei (Cui Minliang), Bo Wang (Yao Eryong).

Jia Zhangke’s Platform is one of the best films of the last decade that hardly anyone in North America has seen. While I have often read about Jia’s work in some film magazines, his films never seem to open in Toronto, and somehow I had gone through the decade without seeing any of his work. But when Cinemascope proclaimed Platform the best film of the decade, and it ranked 11th on Film Comment’s poll, I figured I should see the film for myself. Needless to say, I am now a fan of Jia’s work, and look forward to seeing his other films – Unknown Pleasures, The World, Still Life, 24 City and I Wish I Knew as soon as possible.

Platform is a decade spanning film that chronicles the social change in China from 1980 to 1990. When the decade starts, the country is still under Maoist rule, and as the decade ends, the country has opened itself up to Western influence. Daringly, Jia does not set his film among any protesters or politicians fighting for change – he doesn’t even set his film in a major city. Instead, he focusing on a small theater group, in a out of the way town, who travel to other out of the way towns to perform. The changes in the group are subtle at first – a slightly different wardrobe with more color, a group member getting a perm, but gradually they become more pronounced when they seep into their stage show – the collectivist propaganda is weeded out, and soon they are performing pop songs on stage – under the greatest band name in cinema history the “All Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band- and working for themselves.

Although the movie is filled with characters, it essentially ends up centering on four of them – Cui Minliang (Wang Hong-wei) and Zhang Jun (Jing Dong Liang) are the two male characters, sullen and withdrawn who are in very different relationships with Zhong Pin (Tian Yi Yang) and Ruijuan (Tao Zhao) respectively. Of these characters, Zhong Pin is the most daring of them all – smoking cigarettes, considered unladylike, and getting a perm before anyone else in the area. Her relationship with Cui Minliang perhaps goes too far, too fast, and it is not long before she is at the abortion clinic. The relationship between Zhang Jun and Ruijuan is more old fashioned by comparison – although it is quite clear that they are drawn to each other, and complement each other well, Ruijuan tells him that they cannot be together – her father does not approve of their relationship.

Jia’s film is remarkable in how it shows social change not in the big sweeping moments, but in the everyday moments of these people’s lives. Jia prefers long shots – often lasting minutes at a time – as he sits back and observes these people in their lives. The outdoor scenes he often shoots at a distance, as if eavesdropping on the characters in their moments. The indoor scenes often seem cramped an uncomfortable – there is not space for them to move around. Jia never really calls attention to the changes in the style, the music or anything else that signifies the changing social reality in China – but it is there is every scene. His sound design is interesting – often we hear things in the background – a march or a rally most of the time – that the characters are not participating in. Most filmmakers would concentrate on these events, but to Jia, they remain in the background. The social change in the movie is better signified by pop music than anything else.

The characters in Platform are struggling to find their identity in the new China. After years of living in a closed society, they have to deal with the fact that it has suddenly opened up. After years of self denial, they can now indulge in whatever they choose to. That is what makes the final shot in Platform the film’s best – one of the most haunting final shots in cinema history. In many movies, the final shot would be a happy one – one of domestic bliss and tranquility, of two characters who circled each other throughout the movie finally ending up together. Yet in Platform, it is a sad shot, and because Jia holds it for so long, and has the creepy music playing underneath, it adds to the shots mounting doom. Free for the first time ever, they still choose the path of least resistance, and lead the same lives they could lived under the old social order. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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