Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Chinese EcocinemaIn the Age of Environmental Challenge$

Sheldon H. Lu and Jiayan Mi

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9789622090866

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789622090866.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM HONG KONG SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.hongkong.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Hong Kong University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in HKSO for personal use (for details see www.hongkong.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 16 January 2019

Ruins and Grassroots: Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Discontents in the Age of Globalization

Ruins and Grassroots: Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Discontents in the Age of Globalization

(p.128) (p.129) 7 Ruins and Grassroots: Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Discontents in the Age of Globalization
Chinese Ecocinema

Hongbing Zhang

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that the films of Jia Zhangke approach the issue of globalization through a particular lens of ecological consciousness and a unique cinematic use of the spatial relationship between man and environment. He also frequently puts various types of ruins in the setting and focuses his camera largely on those people who have been discovered and characterized in China today as cao gen or “grassroots.” This cinematic maneuvering sends out a strong ideological message, directing one's attention to the edges of globalization as an historical monster and to the margins of China as a miracle of globalization, where the lines between the integrated and disintegrated are drawn in a most visible and yet complicated way.

Keywords:   Jia Zhangke, globalization, ecological consciousness, cao gen, grassroots

Produced at a time when China was being swept deeper and deeper into the currents of globalization, Jia Zhangke’s films can be viewed today almost as an impossible effort to arrest that flow, as at once a cinematic reconstruction, a comment, and an intervention toward that very historical process. They can be taken simultaneously as important and active participants of the ongoing debates on the process of globalization in China today. Recent Chinese theories and comments on globalization are as ideologically different as one could imagine, but we can still stake out, with the audacity of theorization and historicizing at the outset, the problematic underlying their polemics and arguments as something of a shared discursive ground — globalization is a continuation of the historical process of modernization, but its historical emergence has also brought something fundamentally different with it. While modernization has long been understood in China essentially as a temporal movement in which China will be improved from its old tradition to the universalized ideal of a new tomorrow, now globalization is broadly perceived as a spatial movement in which the improvement of China means its integration into the current dominant world system of market, commodity, capital, and culture. But, as much as how the spatial movement functions as a continuation of the temporal movement — e.g., culturally, the former as a disenchantment with the latter? — needs further theoretical exploration as well as historical refection, this shared view of globalization as integration-cum-modernization also has to deal with some new (p.130) challenges: What and how to integrate, what to be left behind, who has the power to integrate what and whom, and how to define the relationship between the integrated and disintegrated?1

These questions and their various possible answers have no doubt informed Jia’s films, especially his recent films like Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiaoyao, 2002), The World (Shijie, 2004), and Still Life (Sanxia haoren, 2006), but he approaches the issue of globalization through a particular lens of ecological consciousness and a unique cinematic use of the spatial relationship between the character and the mise-en-scène and, by an extension beyond the optical illusions of the cinematic world, of that between man and environment. As viewers, we see that he frequently puts various types of ruins in the setting and focuses his camera largely on those people who have been discovered and characterized in China today as cao gen or “grassroots.” This cinematic maneuvering sends out a strong ideological message, however, and it directs our attention to the edges of globalization as a historical monster and to the margins of China as a miracle of globalization, where the lines between the integrated and disintegrated are drawn in a most visible and yet complicated way. On the screen, the unique presentation of the relationship — essentially of a cognate nature marked by a sense of being the disintegrated — between the grassroots character and the ruinous mise-en-scène has shown for us, in a seemingly de-sentimentalizing manner, Jia’s sentiments of discontent toward globalization. They are similar to the sentiment that recognizes the historical inevitability of globalization in the world today, on the one hand, and is intensely dissatisfed with some of the failures of its historical promises for the Chinese people on the other. In such a sentiment, the presentation on the filmic screen also distinguishes Jia’s effort to explore the so-called “yuan shengtai” or the “original eco-state of life” beyond the glamour of globalization from many other efforts and appropriations that have been increasingly commercialized as a cultural fashion of nostalgia in China today.

Globalization and Cinematic Flatness

What has made Jia’s films stand out in today’s Chinese cinema as something different from other Sixth Generation, Fifth Generation, entertainment, and government-sanctioned so-called “leitmotif” movies, appears to be the frequent production of a cinematic flatness on the screen, whereby we see that major characters in the films are controlled and restrained by the mise-en-scène and, in turn, the socio-historical reality it represents. As subject, they seem to enter the filmic frame only to be subjected to the enormous objectifying power of the camera lens and thus rendered not much distinct from the surroundings, as if they were immediately sucked and swallowed up — though not yet completely — by the material and social (p.131) environment. The cinematic space would appear thereby to lose much of the human dimension as depth to it. So, we see — against the sea of bicycles and the crowd in Xiao Shan Going Home (Xiao Shan huijia, 1993), the ramshackle streets in Xiao Wu (1997), the old brick walls and the yellow earth littered with ashes from coal mines in Platform (Zhantai, 2000), the dilapidated and desolate bus stop and train station in Unknown Pleasures, the scaled-down landmarks and forests of construction steel cables in The World, the endless debris from demolished houses and destroyed buildings and the silent currents of a gigantic river in Still Life — how the major characters look particularly weak, small, inconsequential, and insignifcant, dwarfed by these enlarged mise-en-scènes and struggling futilely under their weight. This imbalanced spatial relationship between the character and the mise-en-scène in these films has offered us, for sure, something of a new Bakhtinian chronotope that registers a changed sense of historical time and space experienced by the Chinese at the present moment.2 It also suggests something of a cinematic strategy, taking shape in the convoluted discursive shift from modernization to globalization.

On Jia’s cinematic screen, the relative smallness and seeming insignifcance of his characters against a vast material and social background would nevertheless always produce a defamiliarizing effect among the viewers who have been accustomed to seeing Chinese films with melodramatic narratives and enlarged characters. In the revolutionary realist films, whose stylistics and ideologies dominated much of the second half of twentieth-century Chinese cinema and persist today in many of the government-sponsored “leitmotif” films, we often see that the major positive characters, representing a progressive collectivity as the future of history, would always act in a melodramatic way and stand out heroically in front against those negative characters — usually counter-revolutionary forces and reactionary elements — in the background or off-screen. Their heroic images would thereby be rendered large against the physical, material, and social environments. The socialist realist movies made in the early 1980s to address the scars and wounds from the Cultural Revolution and the problems of the just-started social and economic reforms would replace the imposing heroes and heroines representing a revolutionary collectivity with an individual who was usually equipped with a universalized humanity or unwavering political will, but they inherited, nevertheless, the tradition of producing larger-than-life human subjects that dwarfed their immediate material and social environment on the screen. With their actions, thoughts, and feelings presented often in an infated mode to the viewers, these figures became the primary voice of social criticism, political refection, and cultural enlightenment as well as being a most recognizable site of psychological identifcation and emotional discharge. In the radically changed cultural and social context since the early 1990s, where we see increasing commercialization and transnational interpenetration on a global scale, Chinese film directors from the Fifth Generation, the government-sponsored and other entertainment movie camps would continue to generate and (p.132) meet the demand of the audience — shaped by the aesthetics and ideologies of earlier Chinese movies and recently imported Hollywood movies — for an infated subjectivity in their films. Against the overshadowed and squeezed mise-en-scène of the material and social environments, enlarged images of human subject would continue to appear on the screen, either as a figuration of some deep-seated aspiration for human dignity, national identity, or philosophical transcendence; as the rebellious face of human desire against those naturalized patriarchal structures; as a visual metaphor for the melancholy feeling over some helpless and hopeless socio-political failure; as a representative of certain morally correct force; or as a fantastic idol of love and passion in their undisguised commodity-forms.3

It is signifcant for us to observe that, in these films, the spatial tensions and conflicts between the character and the mise-en-scène (whether the latter serves as an immediate resistance and restraint or an ultimate manifestation and reifcation of the former’s subjectivity) occupy only a secondary place after the dramatized relationships between the characters. They are, for sure, still a necessary and significant component of what constitutes the melodramatic plot and cinematic depth. In the meantime, the enlarged images of human subjects and the dramatized struggles among them reflect, in a truly dramatic manner, the various movements, campaigns, and ideologies of voluntarism that have appeared in all sorts of forms in modern Chinese history. The imperial gesture of the characters toward the dwarfed mise-en-scène reminds us, especially in those revolutionary and socialist realist films and some of the Fifth Generation films, of the discourse of “civilization versus savage wilderness.”4 The discourse is undoubtedly a core component of the grand narrative of modernization and modernity that has encouraged the Chinese to reform and change or to transcend their living environment, whether the latter is social, political, material, or natural. In the light of this narrative, the present environment is viewed then, primarily, as the remainder and reminder of the past that needs to be improved or even overcome on the way to a better life located in the future. The social totality, if any, represented successfully in these movies, is accomplished therefore not so much through the mise-en-scène or the spatial context as through the human characters, the dramatic relations between them, and their aggressive acts towards the environment. The highlighted subjectivity on the screen serves essentially as an agency of historical change and, in that regard, also prefigures the future of the society. Here the chronotope of space-time dynamic is constructed, more than anything else, around time, history, and the human agency of historical change.

From this Chinese cinematic tradition, Jia’s films have emerged as a departure, with almost a stylistic reversal on the screen, of the spatial relationship between the character and the mise-en-scène. In his movies, medium and long shots are frequently used to keep characters away from the foreground, zooming them out into the broad and distant background, sometimes so far away that they even become indistinguishable from their surroundings. Being part of the mise-en-scène (p.133) within the frame, the objects and extras in the otherwise unoccupied foreground would sometimes block the major characters of the films from the viewers. Yet simultaneously, they would always give, together with the mise-en-scène on other sides of the frame, a strong sense of cinematic embeddedness and geographical locatedness to the characters, who would otherwise appear to break away from their immediate material and social background, as in those earlier movies of enlarged subjectivity and conspicuous voluntarism. Now framed by the mise-en-scène on the four sides, the characters’ images in Jia’s films are smaller, and their struggles and tensions among themselves and against the material and social environment — the primary contents of the narrative plot — are thereby rendered visually more contained and less visible and dramatic.

The diminishing of subjectivity as such would defnitely expand the purview of mise-en-scène or spatial context on the screen of Jia’s films. On the other hand, the use of long take — the other feature of his cinematic style — to shoot some distanced and seemingly uneventful scenes would turn the historical time, which often appears on the screen as if coming to a standstill and thus becoming a becoming-space of time or a “time-image,” virtually into a narrative space rather than a narrative time that would otherwise manifest itself on the screen in what Gilles Deleuze calls “movement-image.”5 In the meantime, the idiosyncratic use of the soundtrack, especially of pop songs, and those of TV programs not only reinforces the general mood and theme of Jia’s movies, but the audio and video intertextualities also greatly expand the cinematic space, as if to deliberately break through the boundary and distinction between the cinematic screen and the real world, while also serving to suggest the historicity of that very space.

The historical validity and authenticity of Jia’s cinematic style — an essentially global style that is said to be a product less of the local post-socialist realism in China than of the aestheticized realism popular on the current international art film market6 — has to be sought nevertheless in the historical time and space experienced by the Chinese in the age of globalization. And the ideological emissions of his style also have to be examined accordingly by reassembling and inserting them back into the changed historical space so as to stake out their historical content and determine their historical function. The cinematic flatness produced by Jia’s filming style, especially the small character and shrinking subjectivity — taken here as part of an overall semiotic reconstruction and cinematic interpretation of the historical reality — has registered his own perception of present Chinese life as a much reduced and thereby more inconsequential human existence in the torrents of globalization. In the meantime, it has also demonstrated his commitment, arguably with the same intensity if not more than that for the people, to the social and material conditions in China today. Yet a critical analysis of the environment’s semiotic contents — especially the architectural ruins — and of the grassroots people struggling in the staged space is expected to move us beyond the cinematic stylistics to a horizon of (p.134) the ongoing historical process of globalization, from which Jia’s cinematic style has emerged as at once a consequence and an imaginary solution.

The Disappearance of Nature

In Jia’s films, the enlarged spatial context on the screen, gained at the cost of human subjectivity, has to be distinguished from the natural landscape of the pre-industrial age, and his environmental consciousness has to be differentiated from the consciousness of nature. The distinction would lead us, then, to situating Jia’s movies right in the cultural politics in contemporary Chinese cinema of relating nature and naturalized agrarian life to the ongoing historical process of modernization and globalization.7 In Chinese cinema since the 1980s, nature or naturalized agrarian life has long been represented on the screen as an objectifed target of historical struggles for change in such films as The Legend of Tianyun Mountain (Tianyun shan chuanqi, dir. Xie Jin, 1980) and Yellow Earth (Huang tudi, dir. Chen Kaige, 1984), where, as an absolute Other of history, the remote mountain and yellow earth are also used as an ultimate ahistorical template to launch historical reflections on the calamities of the Cultural Revolution and the failure of the communist liberation movement and rhetoric. Or, we see, in the form of naturalized agrarian landscape in the ethnic minority area, nature is ceded from historical changes as a utopian enclave in Sacrifice of Youth (Qingchun ji, dir. Zhang Nuanxin, 1985) for the cultivation and promotion of a humanist and feminist consciousness. And in the appearance of the vast feld of red sorghum, it is idealized in Red Sorghum (Hong gaoliang, dir. Zhang Yimou, 1987) as the fnal and ultimate reserve of some primitive passion of the individual and the nation that is staged on the screen to explode against the invading Japanese. Or, in the image of green mountains, it is represented in Postman in the Mountain (Nashan naren nagou, dir. Huo Jianqi, 1999) to redeem in the much commercialized and alienated Chinese life some disappearing ethic of labor that is based upon the notion of a harmonious relationship between man and nature, and which is seen on the screen to be successfully passed over from father to son.

Parting company, both ideologically and aesthetically, with these cinematic practices, Jia’s cinematic discourse implies, as we will see, a denial within itself — a denial of nature and naturalized landscape as an ultimate outside and exteriority or as a transcendental utopian enclave of history in his cinematic discourse of modernization and globalization. In what is presented largely as an urbanized space in his movies, we see an increasing marginalization and disappearance of nature and naturalized agrarian life or, to be more exact, a trajectory where nature and naturalized agrarian life, if any, are represented on the screen — often in a dystopian fashion — to be part of the ongoing historical process of modernization and globalization.

(p.135) Of Jia Zhangke’s films, perhaps Platform and Still Life provide us with a better view of the disappearing nature or the naturalized agrarian life than Unknown Pleasures, The World, or Xiao Wu, which offer only feeting glimpses on the edge of their frames. Set in the small town of Fenyang in Shanxi Province, Platform allows us to follow the young performers of a newly privatized theater troupe into a rural China, whose yellow color, grayish houses, and numbing dreariness would remotely remind us of the landscape in Yellow Earth. The cold and expansive rural and natural environment might momentarily offer some fresh air to the young people whose life within the old walls of the town has become more and more monotonous and boring against the infuences of change from coastal China. But essentially it plays the same role, as the urbanized space does in the town, of a depressing and recalcitrant material and social environment for the young people’s pulsating aspirations for a change. Yet, unlike the claustrophobic pre-industrial landscape in Yellow Earth that naturalizes the patriarchal structure and simultaneously asserts itself as a limit to the historical change the communist enlightenment project is supposed to bring but fails to do so, the landscape in the rural China of Platform is deeply penetrated and transformed by modern historical changes. Indeed, the coalmines operated beneath the farming land or in the dreary hills surrounding the village where the young performers stay, and the railroad passing through the barren and wild mountains, all suggest that the rural landscape is being gradually industrialized and thus has lost much of its power to naturalize beyond history. Furthermore, the villagers’ silent courage to risk their lives working in the coalmine for money instead of continuing to farm their land, and the young performers boisterously running after the passing train in the mountains which illuminates contrastively the depressing harshness of the rural existence and landscape, also signal its fast disappearance in the ongoing national drive for modernization (see Figure 7.1).

Ruins and Grassroots: Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Discontents in the Age of Globalization

Figure 7.1 Young performers pursuing the passing train in the mountains in Platform.

(p.136) On the other hand, following the two characters that come to the city of Fengjie to look for their spouses in Still Life, we are to see on the screen a different type of natural landscape in the Three Gorges. The foggy green of the trees on the steep mountains and the greenish waters of the river running at their foot constitute the natural landscape, whose ideal natural beauty is presented however to be preserved or reproduced now primarily on the ten-yuan bill of the Chinese currency as the demolition laborers have noticed, and in the poetic lines from ancient China that the modern tourist industry appropriates as a selling point of nostalgia to appeal to its customers. Subjected to the changes brought about by the Three Gorges Dam project that is part of China’s global search for energy to sustain its booming economy, the natural landscape is presented here as elegiacally disappearing. Yet unlike that in Platform whose disappearance might signal all the more the need for the unquestioned and seemingly unquestionable modernization drive, its disappearance here, due directly to the surging and swallowing waters frequently measured out in metrics on the screen, is presented as a visual question to the very drive for energy. While the appearance of the cold and gray natural environment in Platform is viewed largely as depressing and tough for the inhabitants, it is the disappearance of the warm and green landscape that is seen here as a threat to the everyday life of the inhabitants.

It is apparent for us to see that the two types of nature or natural landscape are cinematic products of two different discourses — the discourse of modernity in Platform where the ideal proper of modernity and the national modernization drive are left essentially unquestioned and not criticized, and the discourse of globalization in Still Life where a critical consciousness is also presented conspicuously for China’s modernization drive and its global ambition for economic power in the world. While Jia’s differentiated use of the two discourses in his movies merit further clarifcation in the below, for now we can see that the two types of natural landscape’s shared marginalization and disappearance — their subjection to historical change and reduction in narrative time and space — are managed on the screen not only to reflect a continuous historical process in contemporary China where nature is experienced indeed as something fast disappearing at the approach of drastic historical changes. They are presented on the screen also to indicate, on Jia’s part, a persistent cinematic preoccupation with the human world of here and now, thereby refusing to give nature in his cinematic discourse the utopian space of being an outside, an exteriority, or an enclave of history. In this sense, the persistent use of the various types of nature or natural landscape in the films is purported by Jia only to register, beyond the visual and ideological illusions, the different social, political, and ideological divisions and struggles in the production of space where, à la Henri Lefebvre, the “differential spaces” on the screen can always be traced back to the “contradictions of space” generated in the historical process of modernization and globalization that China is undergoing at present.8

(p.137) Ruins and Public Space

For Jia, the filmmaker of the so-called “urban generation,”9 the human world of here and now refers primarily to public space in a contemporary Chinese urban setting. This space takes all kinds of physical form in his films — street scenes of traffc, crowds and stores, city walls, video room, train station, bus and ship, park, construction site, factories, and so on. It is a physical, material, and social space that seems to have endless fuidity and openness, where people see and hide, meet and escape, where legitimate business and illegal activities mix up, where social responsibilities take shape, and private desires are incarnated. It is also a space undergoing incessant changes and transformations, where new things rise to coexist, co-opt, and compete with the old ones, and sometimes simply replace them, though always leaving behind some irreplaceable and indestructible remains and residues as if deliberately to demarcate the limit and historicity of the new arrivals.

On the screen of Jia’s films, the dialectical “Other” of the public space — the intimate and private space of a home — is squeezed to its minimum. This is not just because, as an interior space of human dwelling, it suffers the most from the cinematic shrinking of subjectivity. It is also because its supposed or expected occupants, whom the filming camera is anchored to frequently identify with or follow, are arranged to be on constant move in the open, either physically running away from home in the hope of securing a better life elsewhere, or being financially too poor to afford it at all, or still searching for it with hope and anxiety, or simply witnessing helplessly its destruction and transformation into a homeless and deserted public space with indefnite rubble and ruins.

Of all the rich signs and symbols populating the public space of Jia’s films that a preliminary semiotic survey would list, two signs stand out that could be of structural signifcance to the space: the police and architectural ruins. By watching all his movies from the earliest Xiao Shan Going Home to the recent Still Life, we are able to detect a cinematic trajectory where the police decrease and the ruins increase, and the 2002 film Unknown Pleasures becomes something of a turning point in these semiotic movements. Indeed, in Unknown Pleasures and the movies before it (including Xiao Shan Going Home, Xiao Wu, and Platform), the police make a visible presence on the screen as a managing and regulating force of the space, directing traffic, catching and disciplining thieves, educating disobedient lovers, arresting bank robbers and other criminals, and safeguarding the various reforms and changes launched and promoted by the state in its modernization drive.10 But its omnipresent power in the public space is marginalized almost to an invisibility and replaced on the screen in the later films of The World and Still Life largely by non-government security guards, whose power is now greatly reduced and limited to some local institutions and private companies.11 In the meantime, architectural fragments and ruins, which only make a fleeting appearance in the (p.138) frames of the earlier movies, now have a prominent presence in Unknown Pleasures and culminate as a dominant sign in the public space of The World and Still Life.

What this semiotic change on the screen registers is in fact the director’s changed perception toward the ongoing historical process whose significant events Jia explicitly refers to in Unknown Pleasures — Beijing’s successful bid for the 2008 Olympics and China’s joining of the WTO. These two events are incorporated in the film to indicate unmistakably a new stage in China’s historical integration into the world system and the penetration of globalizing forces into China. And the way they are introduced to us on the screen — the TV news of the Olympics coming through the eyes and ears of the two disaffected and jobless adolescents who in their street wanderings and pursuits of girls do not care about what is going on in the nation and the world, and the WTO information through the mouth of a schoolgirl talking to one of the disaffected adolescents — also suggests Jia’s view of the historical process as already a pervasive infuence in Chinese daily life. Likewise, the removal from the screen of the police, the otherwise most visible apparatus of the nation-state in everyday life, is also part of the filmmaker’s semiotic reconstruction and cinematic interpretation of the changing role of the state in the new age, a role now making its effect felt not so much through administrative measures and public display as through economic control and market regulation. This is indeed a new cinematic move, quite different from Jia’s previous configuration of the state power in the image of police disciplining and mobilizing the public in the national modernization drive. In the new discursive reconstruction and interpretation, the power of nation-state is now represented on the screen, if not to be outright weakened and erased, at least to be transformed from a spectacle in the public space to an invisible presence (and yet still intensely felt) therein, so much so that it could make room for some new types of spatial connectedness and difference between the character and mise-en-scène, between man and environment, to emerge in the filming frame.

The ruins that grow incrementally on the screen of Jia’s recent films can be viewed as another part and aspect of his semiotic reconstruction and cinematic interpretation of the same historical process of integration-cum-modernization. But the ruins here ought to be seen more in terms of their present or spatial value than in the modernist terms of “age value” or historical value as they have been customarily seen in the Western art history of ruins and in much of the modern Chinese visual culture of ruins. Also, they should be no longer viewed in a nationalist light, as are the ruins in the Yuanmingyuan, which are interpreted as a “memorial to national shame in the pre-Revolutionary era.”12 Indeed, many contemporary Chinese artists and filmmakers have used demolitions and ruins in their works to register “the transformation of a new sensory economy” and concomitantly to “enter into an uneasy, asymmetrical, and contradictory relationship with the teleologies of modernization, developmentalism, globalization, and social progress,”13 but many of them still use ruins in terms of their age or historical value, viewing demolition (p.139) sites as “timekeepers of urban history,” as “the spatial repositories of personal and collective memory in effigy,” and as scars and traumas.14 By contrast, in Jia’s films, the ruins, which have been generalized symbolically as “the ruins of post-Mao China,”15 appear in the movies’ public spaces, whether used as certain ambient elements or as structural points, but always to be viewed as leftovers, sticking-out elements that are not assimilated and integrated, spatial differences that demand a different type of spatial connectedness from those present and seen on the screen, and around — and because of — which a certain degree of spatial uniformity might be able to be achieved in the public space. So, the ruins on Jia’s screen, sometimes with the aid of audio and video intertextualities, never fail to direct the viewers’ attention back to that at once abstract and historical process of globalization, simultaneously always releasing some added ideological emission or message, the content of which depends on the specifc semiotic combinations he put them into on the screen.

It is not surprising, then, to see that in the film Unknown Pleasures, set in the inland city of Datong, ruins start to spread in public space, while globalization, as a worldwide historical process, is indicated on the screen. But, in the movie, the piles of debris from demolished houses on the street through which Zhao Qiaoqiao, the image girl for a liquor company, walks in her chic outft, appear to be not much different visually from the surrounding houses and street scene, which all look gray and shabby (see Figure 7.2). Nor is the long stretch of wasteland across which Xiao Ji, the adolescent with a crush on Qiaoqiao, has difficulty riding his motorcycle, much different from the dusty bus stop on one side and the gray and bleak brick apartment buildings from the 1950s and 1960s on the other side.16 Likewise, the waste and garbage left on the construction site of a highway and around the makeshift stage on which Qiaoqiao is seen dancing to promote the liquor, look little different from the surrounding lands and houses, except for the brand new highway and the decorated stage. The toned-down difference on the screen, between the ruins and their surroundings, shows that the process of change leaving these ruins behind has not yet done much to integrate and transform the others in the public space of the city.

Ruins and Grassroots: Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Discontents in the Age of Globalization

Figure 7.2 Zhao Qiaoqiao walking through a demolished street in Unknown Pleasures.

(p.140) In the movie, the new highways that the TV news says are going to be built to integrate Datong into the provincial and national network of transportation, and the few scattered new buildings appearing briefy on the screen, are purported to show, for sure, what the rest of the public space in the city would be transformed into, thereby becoming objects of desire in the eyes of the inhabitants. Indeed, the wasteland, the demolished houses, the shanty where the adolescent but jobless Guo Binbin and his father stay, the multifunctional railway station where, in addition to its railway function, old and new forms of entertainment intersect; the bleak old apartment buildings in which Xiao Ji and his mother live, the few glassy new buildings in the distance that the camera never takes us inside to see, and the new highways, all constitute an architectural order on the screen, whose varying difference in form and color would tell us a different story of individual well-being, social status, and historical change. In the meantime, they are also shown there to make up a hierarchical order of the objects of desire, with the new buildings and new highways at its top. The virtual existence of the integrating highways on the TV screen could be taken, in this light, as occupying an ultimate place in that order, and with the anticipated turning of its virtual existence into a real one, it forecasts that a bigger wave of historical change is now on its way to the city of Datong that so far is largely left behind by the expected changes. But before that arrives, the ruins and their inconspicuous difference from the rest of the city are used in the movie to indicate the city’s current left-behind status. Simultaneously, they also serve the function of an ambient on the movie screen, reinforcing the general lackluster color and the depressing mood — combined with a veiled sentiment for some ineffable loss and with some anxieties of anticipation — of the present, seemingly uneventful public space that still lacks, at least in the eyes of the two jobless adolescents, Xiao Ji and Guo Binbin, an earth-defying hero that the soundtrack of a pop song repeatedly calls for in the film.

As a stark contrast to the dusty and bleak setting in the film Unknown Pleasures, the public space the film The World constructs is a bright and new cosmopolitan space, set in Beijing, whose structural point and focus of cinematic attention are a theme park of the world with lots of scaled-down exotic and famous landmark sites and buildings from around the globe. Among those shown on the screen, the seemingly pre-historical stones of Stonehenge, the yellow desert with the Sphinx rising in its midst, and the dilapidated column structure of some ancient Greek temple looking much like the Parthenon, are all filmed to maintain their isolated dignity as ruins, but they do not look much different from other landmark sites and buildings, such as the twin towers of the World Trade Center from New York, Big Ben from England, the Eiffel Tower from Paris, and the Taj Mahal mausoleum from India (see Figure 7.3). What is shared by all these world-famous landmark sites and buildings in the screened theme park here is the specter of destruction and death. It is a specter that Cheng Taisheng, chief of the security team in the park, inadvertently (p.141) touches upon when he points out one can still see the complete twin towers in the park even after the original two in Manhattan were destroyed in September 11, 2001 — a spectral quality that could also be characterized as ruinous.

Ruins and Grassroots: Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Discontents in the Age of Globalization

Figure 7.3 Cheng Taisheng showing friends from his hometown around the theme park in The World.

Indeed, like the specimens in the bag of an eighteenth-century European naturalist that were collected from around the globe to complete his abstract system of nature, the landmark sites and buildings in the theme park are collected here from around the world by the tourist company to sell to meet the demands of the Chinese for knowledge of foreign countries, and their global aspirations to “marching out toward the world.” Just like the specimens in the naturalist bag that still give off an air of authenticity, the sites and buildings also emit an ideology of verisimilitude that the tourist industry makes efforts to promote, but they cannot avoid the fate nevertheless of being ruins — as leftovers and something transplanted from elsewhere, they are always haunted by the specter of violence and death exerted by the naturalist and the tourist company respectively to their original natural habitats and socio-historical environments as well as to themselves. In the meantime, they are seen on the film screen to be present on the local landscape of Beijing, being part of it but giving the viewers simultaneously an impression of not quite belonging there and being not yet fully integrated into it. Because of their ruinous nature, the on-screen landmark sites and buildings in the theme park cannot suppress the dialectic “Other” of their verisimilitude — the fakes and forgeries which we see in the movie hang in the minds of both the tourists and the theme park workers.

On the other hand, various as they are in terms of architectural and landscaping style, these scaled-down landmark sites and buildings in the park are rendered visually different on the screen from the surrounding buildings and landscapes. This spatial and architectural difference allows the image of the Eiffel Tower to stand out in the skyline from the forests of scaffolding and endless steel cables of the nearby construction site where the male worker named Little Sister suffers a fatal accident. It also allows the little zigzagging roads in the park to appear out of time beside the newly built broad and straight highway right outside of the park, the (p.142) archaic appearance of the theme park palaces and mausoleums to be easily spotted among the newly built high-rise buildings, and the low and narrow hallway leading from the imperial stage of ethnic performance to the dressing room in the park to become such a sharp contrast to the futuristic hallway inside a KTV entertainment center to which Zhao Xiaotao and some of her fellow female performers at the park were once invited. It is apparent to see on the screen, that against the essentially ethnical and regional architectural styles inside the theme park, against the park as a structural point of spatial difference, the surrounding buildings and landscapes are able to acquire a conspicuous and uniform architectural character of being new and modern, thereby indicating Beijing as largely a modern and cosmopolitan city.

But, in the meantime, as a product of the transnationalized tourist industry, the theme park also radiates and spreads out on the film screen its insuppressible emissions of fakes and forgeries into other parts of the public space in Beijing, thus adding to the globalized city a spectral quality of being inauthentic, unfaithful, fake, ruinous, and also rootless. And such a spectral interaction between the theme park and the rest of Beijing is staked out on the film screen by a series of illegal moneymaking activities. It is meant, perhaps, to be at once ironic and suggestive of the pervasive and perverse dimension of the interaction that such activities are conducted first and foremost by the security chief at the theme park Chen Taisheng, who is supposed to safeguard the park of imitative and fake buildings. Yet, he is seen leaving the park to send fake IDs to his “business” partner Lao Song, so as to open some accounts for “globally reaching” wireless phone service. In the meantime, we also see some of Zhao Xiaotao’s fellow female performers leave the park to fake passion and love with men in the KTV center in downtown Beijing; and Liao Aqun, the woman whom Cheng Taisheng dates behind his girlfriend Zhao Xiaotao’s back, makes, in her workshop, all sorts of counterfeit brands of clothes, handbags, and other fashion products. In this light, the ruinous theme park, as a structural point of the public space in the film, seems to be turning the very modern and cosmopolitan space of Beijing into a vast theme park as well.

In the film Still Life, the debris from the apartment buildings, demolished due to the surging waters of the Three Gorges Dam under construction, appears on the screen — coming to us primarily through the eyes of Han Sanming and Shen Hong in search for their family members — to be something all the more overwhelming and devastating. And our impression of devastation is reinforced on the screen by the few visible signs of life from the ruins that, however, look particularly insignificant and pointless: homeless dogs emerging from the rubble and skulking around silently and aimlessly, the sanitizing workers in masks and white uniforms intently occupied with spraying chemicals all around on broken windows, deserted rooms and pile after pile of rubble and waste, and the sweating bare-chested laborers wielding heavy-duty hammers against the remaining standing walls and foors, with only the sound of hammers and falling bricks breaking the otherwise suffocating, heavy silence.

(p.143) But, what these seemingly inconsequential human actions manage to achieve on the screen, frequently filmed in medium and long shots, is not just a cinematic reinforcement, in a contrastive light, of the devastating sight of the ruins already in place, but also to show the ruins in their making. Following the steps of Han Sanming, a coalminer from Shanxi Province, who is seen walking through the ruins in search of his long-separated daughter and divorced wife, and who later joins the bare-chested workers demolishing houses, we are able to see the violent production of ruins closely — how glasses get broken into fragments, windows taken off, walls pulled down, and a whole building blown up by dynamite. Turned from private apartments into debris on the demolition site, these ruins are presented on the screen as the wreckage and leftovers of a local place and a local mode of daily life that is being destroyed by the surging water that is to be used to generate electricity to power the booming and much globalized national economy. Furthermore, they appear in the camera frame to grow and spread out into other residential areas — following the sprawling routes of trucks transporting debris, accompanying the rapid appearance of the large white Chinese character Ruins and Grassroots: Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Discontents in the Age of Globalization or “demolish,” tracing the threatening footsteps of those youngsters working for the demolition company to force inhabitants out of their houses, and finally emerging under the sweating bodies of the demolition workers like Han Sanming, who come to physically break down the residential buildings into countless pieces of rubble and debris.

In the meantime, following the steps and seen from the perspective of Shen Hong, who has also come from Shanxi to Fengjie looking for her husband, we are now allowed to see another type of ruins — those in the state-run factories that have been closed down after their properties were sold to private owners. The dark and dusty workshops, the rusty tall furnace, the gigantic tanks, and the huge rust-red pipes — no longer operating and staying motionless there without any maintenance — constitute the heroic site and sight of industrial ruins on the film screen, against which the noisy collapsing of a collective institution can still be heard and seen in the complaint and anger of its former employees. The industrial and residential ruins are both presented to take up so much narrative space and time in the film that the newly built high-rises, the new bridge across a tributary of the Changjiang river, the gigantic Three Gorges Dam, the distant grey network of power lines, the familiar green color of the disappearing natural landscape on the edge of the frame, and the strangely shaped architecture that is seen magically fying with certain grand ambition into the sky like a rocket, are all turned thereby into an ambient of the public space. The focus of cinematic attention in the film is placed firmly on the residential ruins, which is filmed in such a way as to become the essential structure and primary spectacle of the public space. Structured and manifested as such, the cinematic space registers unmistakably an ideological as well as an aesthetic preoccupation of the film with home, family, and post-socialist individuals whose lives are now reduced to their ruinous minimum in the age of globalization.

(p.144) Grassroots and Cinematic Discontents

Jia’s semiotic construction of the public space in his recent films as large and ruinous is consistent ideologically and aesthetically with the type of characters whose images he chooses to present as small and inconsequential on the screen. The visual combination of large mise-en-scène and small character becomes at once the vehicle and content of his cinematic interpretation, and a comment on the ongoing historical process of integration-cum-modernization that China is going through at present. The image of a small character dwarfed by a large mise-en-scène, constrained by the material and social environment, and pressed hard by the invisible hand of the emerging, at once abstract and historical world system represented and reifed by the mise-en-scène on the screen, belongs to that of a new social group taking shape in the process of globalization — a group of people who have been increasingly debated and designated in contemporary Chinese media, if not yet so much among scholars, as cao gen or “grassroots.”17

Estranged from the collective organizations and institutions of the past and present and in turn no longer able to be accommodated fully into current sociological and political categories of workers, peasants, proletarians, and the masses, the grassroots people are designated primarily as a social group opposite to the various social, political, intellectual, and economic elitist groups that have well benefted from China’s present integration into the world system. They are struggling as the weakest link in the social, economic, and political fabric, and they are far away from various forms of power invested in other social groups. The image of grassroots brings to the Chinese mind the following properties that are associated frequently with this group of people: their lowly, rough, and minimal form of existence; their extraordinary capacity of surviving by any means, legal or illegal, and in all sorts of environments and conditions; and their unique bonding and attachment to soil and earth. For contemporary Chinese media and those in the West as well, the life stories of these grassroots people, discovered or constructed, constitute the rare picture of another type of the so-called “original eco-state of life” that lies locally beneath and beyond the glaring glamour of globalization in China today, and which, therefore, is viewed with much nostalgia to be fast disappearing from our globalized view.18

It is apparent that Jia’s cinematic representation of the grassroots people, unassimilated into and so not benefting much from the new historical change, is endowed, if not with an outright and open criticism, at least with some cinematic discontent toward the ongoing historical process of globalization. But, even from his early narrative films, we can find that the discontented and critical gaze comes to us not so much from the relationship between the characters as from the constructed tensions and conflicts between the characters and their material and social environments. This arrangement is made not only out of Jia’s general perception of Chinese life as a reduced and squeezed existence in the historical process of change, (p.145) but also — and more likely — from a realization on his part that the change, at once abstract and historical, is so pervasive and penetrating in Chinese life that, rather than being able to be personifed in any particular character as its agency, it has to be spatialized in the material and social environment whereby it becomes an invisible but powerful presence. As a result, even tensions and conflicts between the small characters and their powerful environments are not dramatized and appear thereby as some unrelated incidents and accidents in the otherwise uneventful and largely biographical storylines of his films.

So we see, Xiao Shan, the peasant laborer from Shanxi in the film Xiao Shan Going Home, finds his displeasure in Beijing represented on the film screen not so much through his struggles with other people or through the coarse talk of his fellow natives about sex and politics in the dilapidated small room at night. Instead, it is articulated more in the shots of the seemingly unrelated winter street scenes of Beijing he witnesses in detachment and cold isolation, in the coffee-colored appearance of a tall female fellow native he suspects of prostitution, in the violent scene which his friend is involved in but which he comes too late to see and help, and in the black-and-white TV screen that, during the news hour, asks peasant laborers to stay in Beijing and not to go back home for the Chinese New Year so as to avoid burdening the already strained transportation facilities. Likewise, in the film Xiao Wu, the ineffable sense of loss experienced by Xiao Wu, the pickpocket in the city of Fenyang, is manifested not so much in the distancing of him from his longtime pickpocket friend, who now becomes a legitimized and much-acclaimed self-made entrepreneur, in the sudden disappearance of a female prostitute that he likes, or in the abrupt appearance of the police coming to arrest him. It emanates more from the out-of-pace or strained relationship between the inner dignity screened by his heavy eye-glasses and the fast-commercialized street scenes of stores and shops and the local and faraway social and political events broadcast on TV and radio.

No real dramatic conflict and tension between the characters, and the fact that the conflict and tension between the character and the mise-en-scène always make their appearance in seemingly unrelated incidents and accidents, are perhaps best shown in the film Unknown Pleasures. The jobless adolescent Xiao Ji’s efforts to build up a real struggle and fight with Qiao San, the big moneyed man whose helpers once thrashed Xiao Ji for hanging out with his girlfriend Zhao Qiaoqiao, are undermined and deconstructed completely of their possible meanings by the death of Qiao San in a random car accident off-screen. In the meantime, we also see that, at the end of the film, the police’s interest in Guo Binbin, the other major character in the film and Xiao Ji’s jobless adolescent friend, is not so much for his real exploits as a bank robber as apparently and ironically for his karaoke-style of singing. And Xiao Ji’s supposedly desperate escape from the failed bank robbery turns out to be a futile and unnecessary move because no police or any other law-enforcement personnel are seen as interested enough to come and pursue him.

(p.146) It is significant for us to observe that all the major characters in Unknown Pleasures are struggling for a living outside of government, business, or any other institution. From the very beginning of the movie, we see that Xiao Ji does not have a job and Guo Binbin has just quit his job against his mother’s will. Furthermore, both jobless adolescents live with their dysfunctional families: Xiao Ji stays in a shanty with his father who makes a living by repairing bicycles, and Guo Binbin lives in one of the bleak apartment buildings with his mother, who later in the film is also dismissed from her factory. Obviously, they all live under much fnancial pressure and have little social network as a recourse in their lives, thereby feeling different degrees of inactiveness, helplessness, and meaninglessness. On the other hand, Zhao Qiaoqiao, Qiao San’s girlfriend whom Xiao Ji tries to date as well, does not have a regular job either and she also lives in a family with her single parent father who is now lying sick in the hospital. Of all these characters, Qiao San — though fred from his job as a physical education instructor in a school and thus having to struggle to survive for awhile — seems to be an exception, benefiting the most through legal and illegal business acts from the new historical change. For Xiao Ji, then, the competition with Qiao San for the same girlfriend would take on a double signifcance — it would offer him the excitement and comfort of adolescent fancy and also a target and a venue for fighting against the social establishment, thus elevating himself out of the current stagnant, boring, and meaningless life. Guo Binbin’s girlfriend would also provide Guo with similar excitement and comfort in this indifferent and depressing world. But, the sudden death of Qiao San and the anticipated departure of Guo’s girlfriend for college study elsewhere have destroyed the two jobless adolescents’ hopes of a possible exit from such an environment.

Perhaps for the lack of real action between the characters, the material and social environment is presented and experienced on the screen by the grassroots people to be all the more pervasive and heavy. In Jia’s early movies set in the historical period of reform and modernization, its pervasiveness can still be aestheticized in such a powerful way that, for instance, in the film Platform, the intrusion of the thick old wall as an obstacle into the tryst of the two theater troupe performers Cui Mingliang and Yin Ruijuan could still be arranged by the director with confdence to appear also as a shield to protect their budding love from other people on the screen and as a visual block to the viewers’ penetrating gaze. But the no-exit material and social environment in Unknown Pleasures, set in the age of globalization, is presented largely from the perspective of Xiao Ji, Guo Binbin, and Zhao Qiaoqiao as predominantly indifferent, callous, and depressing. It is in such a depressing environment that not only do we see the sabotaging activities of blasting buildings and robbing banks as violent means of fighting against it, we also see that, as those who are left behind and ignored by the fast-changing society while still embracing their adolescent fancy, Xiao Ji and Guo Binbin frequently appeal, often in the space of an imaginary created and promoted by the then-pop songs, to (p.147) becoming earth-defying heroes who would come and change the environment, or, to becoming somewhat like the ancient Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s mythical bird that would fly high, far and carefree to ultimately transcend it.

The historical setting of Unknown Pleasures on the margins of China’s globalization — the inland city of Datong — and in its early stage of change makes it cinematically possible for Jia to articulate some of the grassroots people’s feelings and sentiments of discontent in such an explosive way on the edge of the film screen, and it is also capable, throughout the film, of making room on the screen both visually and acoustically for the characters to appeal for some imaginary escape from the depressing material and social environment. But the world, with room for such an outlet for the grassroots people to vent their discontentment, with such cinematic possibilities offered by the implied historical time and space, is to be completely changed in the film The World, which has a much more globalized space. In this space, the historically central position of Beijing in a much advanced stage of China’s globalization forces the director to configure the public space with a totally new face and articulate the grassroots people’s discontentment with some new cinematic means.

In The World, the theme park as a world of imitation, fake, and ruins and the whole public space structured by it are presented on the screen to be experienced by the characters, mostly coming from outside of Beijing, as a glamorous trap. Lured by the opportunities this space would offer, Cheng Taisheng, previously a farmer in Shanxi Province and now the security chief in the theme park, comes to Beijing in the hope of not only winning over his love, Zhao Xiaotao, but also of becoming somebody some day. But the public space of power, wealth, fake, and ruins in Beijing leads him astray, sending him down the wrong track which, as we have seen, involves him not only in making fake IDs but also in being unfaithful to his love. While the fake IDs are not seen in the movie to have any repercussions or to incriminate him, his unfaithfulness does comes back at the end, however, through the text message of a wireless phone, to haunt him and make him pay the price of losing his real love — perhaps forever. In the meantime, Zhao Xiaotao, who used to be a country girl in Shanxi and is now a lead performer in the theme park troupe, finds the seemingly glamorous life of performing and faking every day in the park to be boring and depressing, so much so that she wants to get away from the ruinous and fake park in the hope of landing on the real and solid ground of the outside world. For Zhao Xiaotao, it is her boyfriend Chen Taisheng, who safeguards the park of imitation and fake and often goes outside into the real world of Beijing, who represents not just the hope of love and comfort in her life but, more importantly perhaps, the only real and solid thing in the world of fakes, counterfeit, and unfaithfulness at large. So we see, when the text message suggesting Chen’s betrayal reaches Zhao, she feels that not only have her trust and love been misplaced, the guard protecting the real from the fake forever lost, but also the whole glamorous (p.148) world of wealth and prosperity is now imploding around her as a world of total imitation, fake, counterfeit, and unfaithfulness.

It is important to note that the grassroots people in The World are geographically and socially much more inclusive — or more cosmopolitan — than those in Jia’s early films. In addition to Chen Taisheng and Zhao Xiaotao, we also see how their fellow natives from Shanxi, like Little Sister, came to Beijing to work on a construction site; Zhao Xiaotao’s ex-boyfriend Liangzi stopped by at the theme park and then went abroad to Mongolia; Anna came from Russia to work in the theme park and then moved to work in a KTV entertainment center; and Liao Aqun, whom Chen Taisheng dated behind his lover Zhao Xiaotao’s back, came from Zhejiang Province to make and sell counterfeit products in Beijing and finally went abroad to join her long-separated husband in France. Such an extended list of grassroots characters, like all the transplanted landmarks in the theme park supposedly representing the whole outside world for the Chinese, is purported nevertheless not only to offer us a broad view of how much and how thoroughly globalization has penetrated into Beijing, or how much Beijing and China have been globalized, but also to show us how the benefits and problems of globalization are distributed among different social groups in light of their respective positions in it.

No doubt, those benefiting the most from China’s globalization are people like the businessman (played by the director Wang Xiaoshuai) who tries to seduce and harass Zhao Xiaotao in the futuristic hallway of the KTV entertainment center, and the least benefiting are those disintegrated ones, such as the shadowy garbage-collecting old man who, in the establishing shot at the beginning of the film, walks slowly to the foreground against the theme park and the modern buildings in its surroundings and then looks back at us for a moment. But what separate these two groups of people are not just their different wealth and social status but also — and in particular — the freedom to move and travel internationally. The businessman attempts to seduce Zhao Xiaotao not just with his money and fne food but primarily with what she lacks — the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong. For the majority of characters in the movie, who are grassroots people mostly integrated into the fow of globalization by either working in the theme park as part of a globalized tourist industry, using fake IDs to make illegal money, or producing counterfeits of world-famous brands circulating on the global markets, the freedom to travel internationally is still a marker of difference that separates them. In the eyes of Zhao Xiaotao, Chen Taisheng, and others, Zhao’s ex-boyfriend Liangzi, the Russian woman Anna, and the fake-brand producer Liao Aqun become objects of admiration, much luckier and more successful in life, because they all have their own passports that would allow them to travel around freely. Likewise, for Zhao Xiaotao and Little Sister standing in the forest of steel cables on a construction site, those in the airplane flying right above their heads in the sky become the luckiest people in the world. In a contrastive light, the theme park and the rest of Beijing, primarily through the (p.149) perspective of Zhao Xiaotao, Chen Taisheng, and Little Sister (people who do not have the freedom to travel but who have all the more desire to do so), are represented to be all the more restrictive, repressive, and depressing, and they are unable to offer any real excitement and happiness in the life of the trapped characters.

The theme park and the public space in Beijing are shown on the screen to be such glamorous traps of ruins, fakes, and unfaithfulness, that Jia has to use new cinematic means to represent the otherwise almost unrepresentable, deep-seated economy of feelings and desires of the grassroots characters. The abrupt and surreal burning of a sofa in the street in broad daylight can be viewed, in this light, as a calculated visual externalization of the repressed emotions surging inside Chen Taisheng, who at that moment is standing in Liao Aqun’s office. And the “virtual realities,” conspicuous visual differences from the rest of the film, are created by using the technology of flash animation to deliberately challenge the conventional principle of realism and to tear open the otherwise harmonized but imprisoning reality of the globalized city. Through the opening of the virtual, we are thus able to see how Zhao Xiaotao’s desire to escape from the ensnaring park is animated on the screen as a bird-like flying lady in a blue uniform; the feelings of the female performers going to the KTV entertainment center as white dots of falling rain in certain street scenes; and, finally, against a black background, the emotions of Chen Taisheng going to see Liao Aqun as a budding pink flower and a green soldier riding a galloping horse that wears a wreath of rose petals; as well as Zhao Xiaotao’s reactions to the text message indicating Chen Taisheng’s betrayal as a lonely grayish fish with air bubbles foating to the surface of water. In the meantime, it seems that, outside of those “virtual realities,” the only other effective means of communication of truthful feelings and serious commitment in the glamorous trap is, ironically, death. Little Sister’s death from an accident on the construction site reveals clearly to other characters around him and us, in the few postmortem shots, not only his difficult financial situation but, more importantly, a sincere commitment, written on the back of a cigarette pack, to trust, and responsibility between members of a community that is, however, far away and absent from the screened world of the globalized city of Beijing. Finally, the supposed deaths of Zhao Xiaotao and Cheng Taisheng from a gas leak are turned, at the end of the film, into disembodied voices, speaking an otherwise unspeakable truth from the blackness of the screen — indeed, for the grassroots people in the dark, a death in the age of globalization is just the beginning of a new phase in life.

Jia’s cinematic discontentment with China’s globalization is nowhere more clearly manifested than in the representation of a devastating site of ruins and a massive displacement of people in the film Still Life. Yet, in order to examine the ideological content of the discontentment, what is of interest and signifcance to us for now is to see from what perspective the ruins and displacement are presented to us. Unlike the previous films that show us largely one story, Still Life gives us (p.150) two stories — through the views of Han Sanming and Shen Hong — which are tangentially connected with each other but are closely related to two different aspects of the same historical event — the building of the Three Gorges Dam. Or, we may argue, as the two stories unfold in front of the searching eyes of Han Sanming and Shen Hong, the film provides us, essentially, with two different perceptions of the same historical event and two different sentiments toward it.

What Shen Hong’s familial search leads us to see, corresponding with the sight of largely industrial ruins, are the collective frustrations and individual sense of helplessness experienced by the people toward the overall globalizing process that in the film centers on the project of the Three Gorges Dam. The collective frustrations are shown to us, however, through a spurious confrontation between the manager and former employees of the factory where Shen Hong’s separated husband Guo Bin used to work. The former employees’ anger over the sale of the factory to some businesswoman from Xiamen, though apparently not related to the Three Gorges Dam project in a direct manner, is revealed to be directed at the wrong person, the manager. For the manager is seen, from the outsider perspective of Shen Hong, to be also very angry and frustrated, and his intense attachment to the state property now being sold to a private owner is best seen perhaps in the shot of his yellow fngers rubbing against the blackish and bluish rusted surface of a disused giant furnace. But Jia does not let the frustration and anger of the workers-turned-grassroots people at the factory escalate into a large-scale and long-time social protest. They are soon cut on the screen to shots of the silent detachment of Wang Dongming, Guo Bin’s old friend, who works at a county institute of cultural relic protection and now is burying himself in excavating some ancient tomb from the Han Dynasty. Indeed, the constructed historical temporality, with its isolated detachment and cold indifference exemplifed visually in the dead watches and clocks hanging in Wang Dongming’s apartment, poses such a sharp contrast to the present experiential time, to Shen Hong’s controlled emotions over her husband’s separation and irresponsibility, and to the incessant ongoing demolition of houses and office buildings, that they illuminate an undercurrent of helplessness felt by such institutionalized individuals as the factory manager and Wang Dongming.

Among all the characters coming into Shen Hong’s view, her separated husband Guo Bin and his presumed mistress Ding Yaling, chairwoman of the company that runs the office of demolition in the city who is also suggested to buy the factory, are obviously among those benefiting the most in the film from the Three Gorges Dam and from the privatization of state property — a drive being part of China’s reform and globalization. So, Guo Bin’s final physical appearance on the screen, coming after all sorts of words about his success, his good ties with government offcials, and his extraordinarily close relationship with his female boss Ding Yaling, who never shows up physically on the screen, becomes, naturally, the climax of Shen Hong’s story of familial search. Yet this narrative climax of a reunion between Shen (p.151) and Guo does not occur in an atmosphere expected for a successful man in the new age, nor does it end in some much expected dramatic action, such as an explosion of anger, crying, or laughter. It is arranged, obviously as another cinematic moment of discontentment, to end in a calm and seemingly meaningless ultimate separation, a final breakup of the hopeless marriage and dysfunctional family, which is nevertheless marked on the screen by a few impassionate and aimless steps danced by Shen and Guo in the foreground, against an epic prospect — ironically enough — of the Three Gorges Dam being successfully built in the not-far-off background.

It is evident that presented with Shen Hong’s story of a familial search, reunion and breakup are also part of a grand vision of the non-grassroots nature that allows us to see not only the gigantic industrial ruins and the heroic collapsing of a collective but also the story of individual success in the new age. Under its far-reaching illumination, the narrative of China’s historical and global ambitions and their successes is able to emerge and unfold on the screen. But as such, it is a brief vision in the film and it is engulfed and curtailed by a grassroots vision embedded in the story, of Han Sanming searching for his long-separated daughter and ex-wife in both the first and final part of the tripartite film. This grassroots vision in Han’s story appears first in the film but it is anchored much lower, showing us largely a local view of the residential ruins and some seemingly random anecdotes in the life of grassroots people caught in the massive displacement.

The majority of characters whom Han Sanming encounters in his search are presented on the screen to be struggling outside of government or business institutions. Their world, without any effective institutional support, is unstable, chaotic, and tough. Little Brother Ma in the film compares it to that of the “jiang hu” or “river and lake,” a term used frequently in Chinese language martial arts novels and movies to refer to the world on the margins of and even beyond the rule of law, where calamities occur and the good and evil fight it out, usually ending in the defeat of evil by the good. But the life of Little Brother Ma — who, in Han Sanming’s eye, is good in nature, always inspired with some heroic spirit, and whose name is taken from an action hero played by Chow Yun-fat in a Hong Kong movie — is presented here to be one not so just, elevating, and heroic as homeless, jobless, and sometimes gangster-like, ending in a humble death in the rubble of residential ruins. While the evil hand behind Ma’s death is never shown on the screen, the source of an unstable, tough, and chaotic life for the other characters is more directly suggested. In the eyes of Mr. He, the good owner of the hostel where Han Sanming stays throughout the film, the evil that forces him to close the hostel business and to move to live in a dark place under a bridge, is apparently what the Chinese character Ruins and Grassroots: Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Discontents in the Age of Globalization or “demolition” written on his wall signifes — forced relocation due to the surging water from the ongoing project of the Three Gorges Dam. For the same reason, we see that the middle-aged woman, whose daughter used to be in the same school as Han Sanming’s daughter and whose husband lost one arm, has to leave her soon-to- (p.152) be-demolished home. And Han Sanming’s ex-wife, Little Sister Ma, and her brothers lose their homes to the surging water, and are shown on the screen having to live on boats, walking on the unsteady decks everyday and making a humble living in the world of “river and lake” — in its literal if not so symbolic sense.

Planted in Han Sanming’s perception of the grassroots world that Jia presents as dominating the film screen is, as we have suggested, a moral lens of good and evil, and its focus is on home and family. The impressive visual display of demolishing the residential buildings and houses into countless rubble and ruins and the talk of family members being scattered to different parts of the nation are purported, thereby, to carry a moral weight and articulate discontentment of the Three Gorges Dam project. Yet, in showing us the human feelings and emotions emanating from the residential ruins and the falling-apart of families, Jia manages to have Han Sanming escape from such scenes as that of indignation and anger in the relocation office at the beginning of the film, so as to keep them on the margins and prevent them from exploding into a massive public protest on the screen. In line with the view of Chinese life in the new age as a reduced existence, he chooses to show human emotions and feelings here in the reserved and detached form of discontent, deliberately downsizing their passionate articulations on the screen. Han Sanming is seen, therefore, to talk to Mr. He almost expressionlessly and emotionlessly about his plan of looking for his separated daughter, revealed later in the film to work somewhere far away from the Three Gorges, and his ex-wife, turning out to make a living by serving the man operating a boat up and down the Three Gorges. Han also witnesses, in a quiet, sympathetic, and yet helpless manner, the scattering of the middle-aged woman’s family, with her daughter working somewhere else and herself having to leave her jobless one-armed husband behind and going alone to the south in the hope of finding a job there.

While using the demolition of houses into ruins and the scattering of families into different places as a cinematic articulation of discontentment, Jia also lets us see the effort it takes to survive and reconstruct what the residential ruins are able to inversely signifly — home and family being the emotional and spiritual core of the material conditions are already started in the film. The desire to rescue and reconstruct home is essentially what has motivated the stories of both Han Sanming and Shen Hong from the very beginning, and it is turned, through scenes of the very destruction and loss of its object, into a dominant structure of feeling in the film. Such a feeling, reinforced throughout the film by the use of various textualizing and intertextualizing cinematic techniques, finds its best articulation in such words as “without home, how would there be you?” from the theme song of the 1983 Hong Kong/Taiwan film Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing.19 Yet the tremendously popular tear-jerking song of the Hong Kong movie is performed here, not by a well-dressed female performer as it was in the original movie, but by a bare-chested sweating male laborer in a parodist fashion to the laughter of the demolition laborers and (p.153) others. The cinematic modifcations are made here obviously to stem the feeling from falling nostalgically into that old expressive mode of bitter passion, but they simultaneously give off certain ideological emissions that identifly Jia’s position with the grassroots people. This ideological position is reinforced by the different endings of the stories of Shen Hong and Han Sanming: though they both see the cinematic mystifcation of a golden object flying in the sky as a star of fate connecting them together, Shen hopelessly breaks up with her now successful husband Guo Bin, but Han ends on a hopeful note that he will come back to remarry his divorced wife, Little Sister Ma, after going back to make some money in Shanxi Province so as to pay off his ex-wife’s debt. In this sense, the image of Han Sanming, the demolition laborer, a human counterpart of the material ruins, a leftover and surviving element that cannot be fully assimilated and integrated into the new change, is endowed here with something more than discontentment — now we see a utopian impulse and vision are emerging at the time of devastating destruction and violence that reduces human existence to its “original eco-state of life.”

In the meantime, we must see, Han Sanming is represented on the screen not as a unique individual but as merely one of the many — he is just one of the demolition workers whose work-honed and half-nude bodies are repeatedly and slowly panned over by the camera to reveal their natural and rough state that contains the most primitive and robust form of labor (see Figure 7.4). However, the labor-based embodied utopian vision of the grassroots people reconstructing home and making a living by physical labor is not yet endowed in the film with any ideological closure. The closure is in fact impossible to achieve at the present moment, historically because the Chinese grassroots people are still struggling just for a survival of their life and home in the age of globalization, and cinematically because the coalmines in Shanxi Province to which Han Sanming and his fellow demolition laborers are heading at the end of the film are said to be not a utopian enclave but a historical place not only of the money they are going to make but also of the death that they will have to face day in and day out.

Ruins and Grassroots: Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Discontents in the Age of Globalization

Figure 7.4 Mostly bare-chested laborers demolishing houses in Still Life.


(1.) For Chinese theories of globalization, see Cao Tianyu, ed., Xiandai hua, quanqiu hua yu zhongguo daolu (Modernization, globalization and the Chinese road) (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2003) and Zhonghua kongzi xuehui, ed., Jingji quanqiu hua yu minzu wenhua: duoyuan fazhan (Economic globalization and ethnic cultures: multiple developments) (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2003). For recent Chinese discussions on modernity and China, see Zhang Yiwu, ed., Xiandai xing zhongguo (Modernity and China) (Kaifeng: Henan daxue chubanshe, 2005).

(2.) “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 84–258

(3.) Schematic discussions are made of the various styles of Chinese cinema in mainland China since the 1980s in Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema (London: Routledge, 2004), 189–239 and 281–196. Analyses of some of these styles can also be found in Ying Zhu, Chinese Cinema during the Era of Reform: The Ingenuity of the System (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2003).

(4.) Dai Jinhua, “Liangge wutuobang zhijian” (Between the two utopias), in Wuzhong fengjing: zhongguo dianying wenhua 1978–1998 (Scenes in the fog: cinematic culture in China 1978–1998) (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2000), 70–80

(5.) For Gilles Deleuze’s time-image and movement-image concepts, see his Cinema 1: The Movement—Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

(6.) Jason McGrath, “The Independent Cinema of Jia Zhangke: From Postsocialist Realism to a Transnational Aesthetic,” in The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Zhang Zhen (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 81–114

(7.) Robert Weller, Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

(8.) Henri Lefebvre’s ideas on the “contradictions of space” and the “differential space,” see his The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford UK: Blackwell, 1991)Chapter 6

(9.) See Zhang Zhen, ed., The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.

(10.) For an interesting discussion of cinematic presentation of the police in contemporary Chinese films, see Yaohua Shi, “Maintaining Law and Order: New Tales of the People’s Police,” in The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Zhang Zhen, 316–343. Notes to pages 137–152 309

(p.309) (11.) The version of The World released in Japan, Europe, and North America for film festivals is about 143 minutes long and in it the police show up on the screen briefly investigating into a theft by a security guard in the theme park. In the shorter version (109 minutes) released in Hong Kong and mainland China for public view in theaters, the police part and the security guard’s love gestures toward a fellow female worker are cut and the plot is thus rendered less melodramatic. I think here the cuts are made more for aesthetic and practical reasons than for “political” or state censorship reasons that Western viewers may tend to associate with.

(12.) Wu Hung, “Ruins, Fragmentation, and the Chinese Modern/Postmodern,” in Inside Out: New Chinese Art, ed. Gao Minglu (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998), 59–66

(13.) Sheldon H. Lu, “Tear Down the City: Reconstructing Urban Space in Contemporary Chinese Popular Cinema and Avant-Garde Art,” in The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Zhang Zhen, 138–140.

(14.) Yomi Braester’s “Tracing the City’s Scars: Demolition and the Limits of the Documentary Impulse in the New Urban Cinema,” in The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Zhang Zhen, 162.

(15.) “Jia Zhangke’s Cinematic Trilogy: A Journey across the Ruins of Post-Mao China,” in Chinese-Language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics, ed. Sheldon H. Lu and Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 186–209Xiaoshan Going Home, Xiao WuPlatform

(16.) Some of the buildings and street scenes in this film have also appeared in Jia Zhangke’s 2001 documentary film Gonggong changsuo (In public) shot in the city of Datong in Shanxi Province. In an interview done in 2005, Jia Zhangke identifies most of the “monumentlike” buildings in the documentary and Ren xiaoyao as from the 1950s and 1960s. The video interview, the documentary, and Jia’s Xiao Shan huijia are now available in the DVD Jia zhangke zuopin ji (Jia Zhangke collection) issued by Anhui wenhua yinxiang chubanshe in 2005.

(17.) This term and the debates related to its use in designating exactly which social group with what kind of characteristics can be found in many Chinese websites and some popular magazines. Some special websites for the grassroots social group have also been set up in China. As far as I know, there is not yet much Chinese scholarship on the new sociological use of the term to describe the current social formation in China.

(18.) The term “yuan shengtai” 原生態 has become such a fashionable word in China today that it appears both in the media and in critical works by scholars. Its popularity can be established as closely related to the fast and massive changes brought by globalization to the life in China today.

(19.) The Hong Kong film Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing was directed in 1983 by Yue Ham Ping. Since the release of the film, the theme song and many other songs in the movie, sung by Julie Sue, have become very popular in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, and they were part of the pop songs that Jia Zhangke’s generation grew up with.