China implements strict censorship which impedes the creation of otherwise preeminent artworks. The film industry, in particular, is encroached on extensively in this way. Any scene that may be interpreted as politically inflaming, omitting those that support the government’s agenda, finds it impossible to survive until the silver screen. This makes for a disastrous outcome, as politics is infinitely connected to the arts, and the two cannot thrive without each other. Chinese films have become dull as a result, their propagandistic themes hackneyed and predictable. Of the few filmmakers who defy this massive governmental crackdown, Jia Zhangke is certainly the most outstanding.
Hailed as “[perhaps] the most important filmmaker working in the world today”(*), Zhangke’s cinema is consistently thought-provoking. His realistic renderings of China, silently protest the effects of modernization. The Three Gorges Dam, for example, has become a recurring structure in Zhangke’s films. The dam is an incredible engineering feat and its completion in 2006 marked China’s transition into a highly industrial nation. Not only does the dam generate tremendous electricity, but it also regulates the flow of the Yangtze River, which historically produced highly destructive floods. With such a massive project, the downsides are apparent and inevitable. In Zhangke’s film Still Life, the Three Gorges Dam loses its usual glory. We witness the destruction of cultures and homes, and the civilians of the city are forced to relocate to unfamiliar parts of the country. The murky water of the Yangtze drowns the city, smothering with it the livelihoods of millions. An old man yells furiously at his phone, refusing to give up his residence. Met with a cold shoulder, he reluctantly settles down elsewhere. The modernization of China is like a rolling tank, destructive and uncompromising. The film’s most haunting aspect is the mechanical movements of the construction workers, their hammers taking down the dilapidated office buildings bit by bit. As the routine thumps of the mass dismantling echo through the city eerily, we are suddenly struck by how lifeless the place is. Void of even the paupers, the hollow shells of the houses are only inhabited by uniformed contractors.
Zhangke is not concerned with modernization, only the way the government is implementing it. Chinese culture is one that is extremely nostalgic of traditional values. This conservative cultural climate clashes intensely with the movement to reconstruction. Qiao from Ash Is Purest White is caught in the middle of this societal crossfire. She longs for a novel western lifestyle, but is grounded by her father’s and perhaps her own reluctance to adapt. Most people struggle to keep up with the increasingly globalized culture. China has yet to digest its own massive culture, introducing even more would only add to the people’s disarray.
Zhangke’s fight for the culture and livelihood of Chinese people is highly admirable. Held in his hands, cinema is at its epitome. Words simply can not do justice to his impressive repertoire. His films are available on sites such as “The Criterion Channel” and “Kanopy”, the latter of which Concord Academy’s library card offers free access to.
(*) John Powers, “Jia Zhangke: Capturing China’s Transformation,” NPR (NPR, December 9, 2008), https://www.npr.org/2008/12/09/98011679/jia-zhangke-capturing-chinas-transformation.