- China’s history since 1949 is seen through the eyes of four writers from different generations in Jia Zhangke’s documentary
- The film, that includes extracts from the author’s books and interviews, features at the 70th Berlin Film Festival
Almost a decade on from his 2011 documentary I Wish I Knew, pre-eminent Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke returns to non-fiction for Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue. Playing as part of the Special sidebar at the 70th Berlin Film Festival, it's an emotional return to his hometown of Fenyang in Shanxi province, where he shot his first film Xiao Wu alongside a number of his later works, including Platform and Mountains May Depart.
Divided into 18 short chapters, with titles like 'Eating', 'Sister' and 'The Old and the New', early on the film features some intriguing 'then and now' shots of Fenyang, with footage from 1997 and 2019. The contrast is startling, and Jia seems to enjoy training his camera on the youngsters on a train journey all plugged into their headphones and staring intently at images on their smartphones. Have things changed for the better? Sometimes it's hard to tell.
Those outside China may struggle at first, with Jia providing little context alongside what appears like a series of slice-of-life vignettes. Only gradually does the film reveal itself as a history of China since 1949, seen through the eyes of four authors: the late writer-activist Ma Feng (whose life is recounted via his daughter) and three contemporary writers from different generations, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong.
As it turns out, the trio of living authors are all speaking at the inaugural LUliang Literature Festival, launched by Jia in 2019, an ideal platform for the filmmaker to turn his camera on. With extracts read from these writers' significant works, the real interest comes with the interviews, as Jia's subjects recount their lives, living through the Cultural Revolution.
Yu Hua, for example, brings lively recollections of his childhood, lying awake at night dreaming up endings for all the censored books he read that had been sabotaged, with pages ripped out. His time as a 23 year-old would-be writer in Beijing, spending a month investigating every part of the city, is equally illuminating.
Likewise, Jia Pingwa's experience of the world through the art of Van Gogh, Picasso and others is as touching as his memories of his grandmother. Liang Hong's talk of her mother, father and sister, and how they depended on each other, brings tears to the screen too. "I'm lost for words," she says. After watching such a sensitive and spiritual depiction of China, you will be too.
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