Boredom, ennui, detachment, disillusionment - ah, yes, youth, the subject of Jia Zhangke's body of work (Platform, Xiao Wu, Unknown Pleasures). But whereas youth, for the Fifth Generation directors, was inexorably tied to the 'cultural revolution' and therefore invariably infused with idealism, Jia's idea of youth is more contemporary, and therefore much bleaker. His bypassing of official approval for his films has allowed him to avoid campy or simplistically neat resolutions - if the vast majority of mainland Chinese cinema can be called 'realist,' Jia's films can almost be called 'hyper-realist,' with tinges of Dogme and documentary film informing his work.
Jia also claims the Taiwan director Hou Hsiao-hsien as one of his major influences. His stark portrayals of young people in small towns, suffering from the societal ills that modernity and a rapidly opening economy brings yet hardly reaping the benefits, have won him international acclaim and hip status as an 'underground' director.
But now, the 34-year-old director has opted to creep to the surface and reach a broader domestic audience by seeking official approval for his latest film, The World (Shijie).
Appropriately, the new film takes place in Beijing and Shenzhen, rather than in
small, indus-trial towns in Shanxi (Jia's native province). According to Jia, The World will express his difficulty understanding the world.
"In recent years, I have flown to different countries," he says. "My world seems to be getting bigger, and my horizons are getting broader, but I feel at a loss in the world. I can't understand the world clearly. The film expresses this kind of puzzlement."
One of the key settings for the film will be the Window to the World in Shenzhen, an amusement park that has miniature replicas of famous landmarks and buildings from around the globe, where one of the protagonists works as a dancer. On board the project are most of the same actors Jia has worked with in his previous endeavours, including Cheng Taisheng and Wang Hongwei.
"I chose the same cast because [these actors] all share the same confusion I feel about the world." For the first time Jia will also be using a completely professional crew. He has even enlisted Taiwanese composer Lin Qiang, who composed the score for many of Hou Hsiao-hsien's films.
Will a bigger budget and official approval soften the hard edges that Jia's previous films had? He insists that The World has not been censored much, and it did not affect his creative process at all. Moreover, he claims that the official process offered him respite from the pressure of producing a film entirely on his own.
"It's just the way it is," he says. "If I want to reach a wider audience, I have to go through the system." The World will wrap up production at the end of July. Distributors have not yet confirmed a release date.
(thatsmagazines.com June 8, 2004)