'Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue' ('Yi zhi you dao hai shui bian lan'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Xstream Pictures
Three writers view the march of history.

Jia Zhangke completes his documentary trilogy about the arts in China with a look at contemporary writers and the times they lived in.

Although it's a film about intellectuals that builds on and incorporates China’s past, Jia Zhangke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Yi zhi you dao hai shui bian lan) frequently reverts to a series of up-close, revealing shots of ordinary people going about their lives in the provinces. Through the mature, sensitive eyes of three writers, who are affectionately connected to these everyday people, we see the profound and generally positive changes that have been wrought in the country since the 1940s.

There is nothing controversial here, and the dramas and tragedies that are recounted feel like they belong to the distant past, principally involving personal and family events. Yet a political dimension wafts through the film’s title, which is taken from a twice-told story by one of the writers, Yu Hua, who remembers swimming out past a sea of yellow water as a child and trying to reach the place where the sea turned blue.

Today, the same spot has blue water.

This is probably the case of a well-made film whose main audience will be its local viewers or, at most, dedicated China fans at festivals like Berlin. For those looking for flash, the two-hour doc may well seem long and uneventful. It’s the opposite of sensational; quiet, dignified and ruminative, it gets far closer to real Chinese people than a TV-style travelogue, though its many references to events in modern Chinese history will probably lose the casual viewer.

Inspired by a literature festival taking place in his native Shanxi province, the doc may be considered the third part of Jia’s trilogy on the arts in China. It follows, at a distance, 2005's Dong (about the painter Liu Xiaodong) and 2006's Useless (about fashion designer Ma Ke). In the opening sequence, granite statues of workers emerge from raw stone, much like Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves, and set a tone of respect and even grandeur toward these unsung heroes of yesteryear, while a chorus of young voices offscreen chants old Communist Party slogans. Jia evokes and celebrates their lives in 18 titled chapters.

HIs first stop is the Jia Family Village (no relation to the filmmaker), where he inserts a shot from his film Platform showing people chatting in front of a large wall mural of the city. This is contrasted to its modern counterpart, a mural showing high-rises and telecom towers. A 91-year-old man recalls the hunger the village suffered in 1949, when they were unable to cultivate the alkaline soil until, one day, they organized themselves into small work units following Mao’s dictum that strength lies in unity, and by filtering irrigation water made the land fertile and productive.

Other changes included the banning of arranged marriages. The daughter of a remarkable writer-activist named Ma Feng recalls her father’s evolution from a poor boy to a journalist and youth leader during World War II. He belonged to China’s first generation of educated farmers.

There is a quick roundup of guests at Shanxin’s first Literature Festival, attended by a bevy of writers speaking to an audience of very serious young people in glasses. The writer Jia Pingwa, born in the '50s, describes how the Cultural Revolution closed the schools and sent his father, a teacher, to do forced labor. Only much later did foreign literature begin appearing in Chinese translations, along with the work of modernist foreign artists.

Yu, born in the provinces in the '60s, labored unhappily as a dentist before gaining fame for his short stories, and his tales of struggling to get published will wring sympathy from scribes everywhere. The third writer is a woman, Liang Hong, who becomes emotional as she remembers her ailing mother and her poverty as a girl. She was forced to stand outside class for a month because her parents couldn’t afford to pay the tuition fee of $6. After Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the '80s opened the door to individual businesses, material life has constantly improved. Yet for both writers, who now live in Beijing, their native land still calls to them strongly and informs their novels.

There’s not much in the way of a climax or final insights to close the film’s casual structure. It’s a pleasure to watch DP Yu Lik-wai’s carefully composed close-ups, which accord dignity to dozens and dozens of anonymous weathered and lined faces on the street. The choice to use classical Western music as a counterpart, particularly Shostakovich, underlines the impression of celebrating them, though the triumphant notes of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" go too far to Western ears.

Production companies: Xstream Pictures, Huaxin Film Distribution Co.
Cast: Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, Liang Hong

Director-screenwriter: Jia Zhangke
Screenwriters: Jia Zhangke, Wan Jiahuan
Producer: Zhao Tao
Director of photography: Yu Lik-wai
Editor: Kong Jing-lei
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
World sales: MK2

111 minutes