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Avoiding the mainstream
( 2003-12-04 08:53) (eastday.com)

Independent filmmaker Jia Zhangke keeps going back to his hometown for inspiration. The result is a series of gritty, realistic films about life in a small Chinese town.

Director Jia Zhangke never smiles. Underneath his calm, cool exterior lies a burning intensity. Maybe it's his personality or maybe it's because the director is essentially unknown in China even though international critics heap praise on his films.

All three films directed by Jia -- ``Xiaowu,'' ``Platform'' and ``Unknown Pleasures'' -- focus on the lives of young people in his hometown, Fengyang County, Shanxi Province. His films are noted for their honest portrayal of life, both good and bad, in rural China. While local reviewers and cinemagoers have said Jia's films are repetitive and visually coarse, the director remains undeterred.

``The town is where I am from,'' says the 33-year-old, who visited Shanghai late last month. ``I lived there for 21 years and understand it so much. Perhaps that is my limit, but I don't want to go beyond it. As for the quality, I just shoot my hometown in a realistic way and show exactly what they are like -- the people, the street, the noise and the environment. They are the same on screen and in reality. Perhaps they don't look nice, but I can't make a portrait of the town in a comfortable way. I believe that's my way of being honest.''

Jia talks with a small gathering and answers the questions of local movie fans at DDM Warehouse, near the Bund, where all his creations have been screened. The crowd of about 50 people filled the room as the projector rolled. The audience is watching ``Platform.'' On one scene, a peasant gets a contract to work at a coal mine.

Illiterate, he asks his cousin to read the contract. The paper doesn't guarantee the safety of miners, but the man still takes the job. This scene is Jia's favorite from not just ``Platform,'' but all his films.

``It unveils some big differences within a small space,'' says the graduate of the Beijing Film Academy. ``Some young people like the cousin are seeking their own lifestyle. However, just across the mountain, others like the miner have to make a decision of life and death. It's an impressive contrast.'' Jia's films are seen by few people in China. Those that see the independent filmmaker's movies are through film fan clubs, at minor film festivals or pirated DVDs. Jia's strength and signature is the documentary style of filmmaking. He uses non-stop long shots, amateur actors with strong accents and lots of background noise. These elements successfully create that realistic look and feel he seeks.

``The documentary function of films is nearly forgotten by most Chinese,'' says Jia. ``The mainstream in the country is all about drama and entertaining programs. But the documentary format can teach a director how to observe and what to observe in real life.'' Though the documentary style looks simple and uninteresting, Jia's works are highly acknowledged by overseas critics and filmmakers. Maria Barbieri, an independent TV producer from Italy, loves Jia's movies. ``His films are great,'' she says.

``With very simple technical means, he managed to portray a lot of depth. You just feel the atmosphere, those young people living in the rural environment in China.'' Barbieri mentions actor Wang Hongwei, who plays leading roles in several of Jia's films. She thinks he is ideal as the small guy who never looks people in the eyes. Moreover, she speaks highly on Jia's plots. ``The story of `Platform' is great,'' she continues.

``Any foreigner who knows little of China can see the passage of time in the 20 years that the film is talking about. `Xiaowu' is so much like early Italian films where somebody is on the verge of accomplishing something different, but encounter many difficulties and remain the same.'' Jia entered Beijing Film Academy in 1993 and started shooting two years later. With the help of friends, he raised just under 200,000 yuan (US$24,096) for his first film ``Xiaowu.'' Highly acclaimed abroad, it has won the Dragons and Tigers Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Wolfgang Staudt Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Sky Prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival. ``Platform'' almost repeated the success, and ``Unknown Pleasures'' has been selected as the only Chinese film to compete in this year's Cannes International Film Festival -- it knocked out big-name Chinese directors Zhang Yimou and Sun Zhou.

Sylvie Levey, a French freelance writer, feels emotional when watching Jia's productions. ``These films are the best I've ever seen,'' she says. ``They are so Chinese, so realistic and so powerful, with no fake stuff at all. Though those characters or scenes look quite `tu' (unsophisticated), they make audiences understand something underneath the surface. And that's part of Chinese culture.'' Currently Jia is preparing the script for his next film, which he says will be something different. `

``Unknown Pleasures' was the ending of my previous phase,'' he says. ``I'll restart from scratch to make my next movie, with new methods and production modes. But I shall stick to the same theme and same people. I am excited about it and will try my best to make it accessible to domestic audiences.''

People can only hope that the talented director delivers on his promise.

Despite some critics belief that he focuses on rural themes too frequently, independent director Jia Zhangke doesn't apologize. -- Gao Yiyang

Movie stills of ``Xiaowu'' and ``Unknown Pleasure,'' two of Jia's ``Hometown'' trilogy. The second in the series is ``Platform.''

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