Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Unknown Pleasures (2002)

Unknown Pleasures (2002) *** ½ 
Directed by: Jia Zhangke.
Written by: Jia Zhangke.
Starring: Wei Wei Zhao (Bin Bin), Qiong Wu (Xiao Ji), Tao Zhao (Qiao Qiao), Qing Feng Zhou (Yuan Yuan), Hongwei Wang (Xiao Wu), Ru Bai (Bin Bin's mother), Xi An Liu (Xiao Ji's father), Shou Lin Xu (Sister Zhu), Ren Ai Jun (Hairdresser), Dao Xiao (Mr. Ren), Zi Ying (Concubine).

Jia Zhangke became a star of the festival circuit and a world renowned director with his 2000 film Platform (previously reviewed as part of this series). That film was his masterpiece – a decade spanning film that looked at China’s transition from Maoism to Capitalism, focusing on a young theater group between 1980 and 1990, and the subtle changes that affected their day to day lives. His next film was Unknown Pleasures in 2002, and while it is a very good film in its own right, it also felt a little like a step back for Jia. It wasn’t that the film was bad – it is an expertly crafted film – but just that it lacked a little of the ambition of Platform. It actually feels more like a film that Jia would have made leading up to Platform, instead of as a follow-up.

The film concentrates on two Chinese youths – Bin Bin (Wei Wei Zhao) and Xiao Ji (Qiong Wu). They have graduated high school a few years ago, and are now essentially drifting. Bin Bin had a job in a grocery store, but he didn’t like taking orders, so now he has joined Xiao Ji in essentially doing nothing. Bin Bin has a girlfriend, still in high school, but they do little except sit in a dark room watching cartoons. His girlfriend is about to go off to college in Beijing to study International Trade, and is excited to see the news about the WTO. Bin Bin couldn’t care less.  Xiao Ji has a crush on a singer, Qiao Qiao (Jia regular Tao Zhao), who is under the control of her “agent”, who also happens to be her former gym teacher. She works promoting a malt liquor company, and at times is also a prostitute. Xiao Ji comes on to her with the pathetic line “I’ll make you soften faster than instant noodles”, but she rejects him – at least at first.

The Chinese title of the movie translates literally into “Free From All Constraints”, and while that is a less catchy title than Unknown Pleasures, it is certainly a more accurate one. Like many of Jia’s characters, Bin Bin, Xiao Ji and to a lesser extent Qiao Qiao are certainly free to do whatever they want to do – it just so happens that in the case of the two boys, they have chosen to do nothing. They walk around their sad little home town, smoking, going to the occasional club, which looks like a rundown factory and trying to figure out what to do. They have glommed onto to Western culture, as evidenced in a scene where Xiao Ji describes the opening scene of Pulp Fiction to Bin Bin, and tries to get him to do something similar, leading to the sad climax of the movie. Qiao Qiao is different from the boys because she actually does have a dream – to be a famous singer, but she’s only adequate at her job, and she is under the control of her manager as evidenced in a scene where she continually tries to get up and walk out of the trailer he holds her in, and he just keep shoving her down. She keeps getting up, and he keeps shoving her down. Certainly she is not “free from all constraints”, but as in many of Jia’s films, has just traded one set of constraints for another.

Jia is at the forefront of Chinese filmmaking right now. His films detail his country in transition – of dealing with the consequences of being a capitalist society, and the human toll it is taking on the country. Surely, he does not view the “old China” under Mao as romantic or idealized, but neither does he see the new country as all that much better. The people are still poor, still forced to work menial jobs. They have freedom in name only, as they are still economically kept down.

I like Unknown Pleasures. Like all of Jia’s films, the film is visually assured – he favors holding his shots for long periods of time, and simply letting the scenes play out in front of the camera. The acting in his films is always great, as it is here.

For me though, Unknown Pleasures is a transition film – as his next film The World (2004) would also be – between his two masterworks, Platform and Still Life. It’s as if having a major accomplishment like Platform on his resume somewhat handcuffed Jia, and he couldn’t quite figure out how to push past it to move onto other things. If he hadn’t had made Platform, I think Unknown Pleasures would be held in higher regard than it is. But he did. Such is the burden of being a filmmaker capable of making masterpieces.

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