'Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang' ('Jia Zhangke, un gars de Fenyang'): Rome Review

Courtesy of Rome Film Festival
A rich, moving tribute to a Chinese filmmaker

Brazilian helmer Walter Salles' documentary about Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke screened in Rome prior to an official world premiere in Sao Paulo

The idea of a feature-length documentary about Jia Zhangke isn't new: the Chinese auteur has already been shown contemplating his roots and his art on screen seven years ago in Damien Ounouri's self-explanatorily titled Xiao Jia Returns Home. Admittedly on a similar scale, Walter Salles' outing is hardly redundant: more than just mining the past, Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang is fuelled by an anxious look toward the future - not just Jia's, but also that of his profession and his people as China marches on to the state-controlled drumbeat of economic liberalism and tight political control.

While shown meeting his childhood friends and collaborators in his hometown – his early pivotal films like Xiao Wu, Platform and Unknown Pleasures were all shot in Fenyang, which was granted city status only in 1996 – Jia muses about a fast-vanishing past replaced by high-rises and high-speed trains. Meanwhile, his recollections about past and present skirmishes with the authorities – the most recent being censors denying his latest film, A Touch of Sin, a license for domestic release – could easily be seen as a reflection of past and present schisms of the People's Republic.

Unveiled as a "work in progress" in Rome on Oct. 21 before its official world premiere in Sao Paulo on Oct. 25, Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang is a moving piece certainly bound for a sustained and successful journey on the film festival circuit.

Destined to be a hit with cinephiles, the film could easily be used to convert newcomers to Jia's work – Salles' documentary could be shown as part of a themed program or retrospective. In Rome, A Guy from Fenyang was followed by a screening of Chen Jialing, a documentary Jia produced for the state-backed Shanghai Film Group studio.

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The documentary begins with Jia walking down Fenyang's main street with Wang Hongwei, the star of Xiao Wu and Platform. Hunting down dilapidated stairwells, half-demolished buildings and back alleys in which they made films more than 15 years ago, the pair discuss how Fenyang has changed beyond recognition – the one thing they take note is how the sleazy karaoke joints – major settings in Xiao Wu which reflect hoodlums' aspirations for something colorful in their banal lives – have all gone out of business, replaced mostly by shuttered shops.

Symbolizing a new China in the making – one free of sleaze (courtesy of leader Xi Jinping's clampdown on crime and so-called immorality) and smalltown mentalities (when economic development has brought a brand-new veneer to even the most provincial of towns), it's a key reflection followed up throughout the film as Jia meets up with various personalities as he revisits family, friends and even faint acquaintances in Fenyang.

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Zhao Tao, his long-time muse (and now also his wife), talks about her first fateful encounter with Jia, which would transform her from a dance teacher into an internationally acclaimed actor (with a David di Donatello Best Actress award to boot now, thanks to her stellar turn in the Italian film Shun Li and the Poet); her most powerful and heartbreaking scene in Platform, in which her character – a dancer stripped of her hopes of better things, and contending with life as a bored police officer – danced alone in her office to the strains of a melancholic ballad, is given a new layer of meaning through her recollections about quashed ambitions in rural hinterlands.

Wang and Zhao are just two of the more familiar faces to appear in A Guy from Fenyang. Jia also catches up with Han Sanming, the non-professional actor at the forefront of Still Life. Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai and sound designer Zhang Yang – who have been working with Jia since the very early days – also pitch in with some of their views about the filmmaker.

Their presence leads to one of the more urgent issues Jia had to confront – how his career is in a mini-crisis as A Touch of Sin, a Cannes award-winner in 2013, was refused a commercial release in China because of its brutal (and very violent) depiction of social injustice permeating China today. As the three men sit around smoking in dejection, Jia speaks of thinking about whether his filmmaking could continue; of course, he would persist, as an on-screen text explains how he's now working on a new project about the lives of Platform's characters (whose stories are concluded in the late 1990s) in the 21st century.

What Salles (and his fellow interviewer, the French critic Jean-Michel Frodon) reveal in A Guy from Fenyang is a man on fire. Beneath the meek veneer (in his exchanges with his family and his nouveau riche high-school buddies) and the mild manners is a filmmaker still seeking a way to make films about all the drastic changes unfolding around him – what he would describe in the documentary as "confused values and social malaise" in a seemingly fine-and-dandy "Chinese dream" (a concept Xi has brought to prominence after taking power in 2012). Looking back at it in a few years' time, A Guy from Fenyang will eventually be as useful a record about a filmmaker's life as Olivier Assayas' 1999 documentary about Hou Hsiao-hsien – who remains, after all, one of Jia's key sources of inspiration.

Venue: Rome Film Festival

Production Company: VideoFilmes

Director: Walter Salles

Producer: Maria Carlota Bruno

Cinematographer: Inti Briones

Editor: Joana Collier

International Sales: MK2 International

In Mandarin


No rating; 100 minutes