NEW YORK -- "Useless," Jia Zhang ke's documentary about Chinese fashion designers and tailors, is a typically thoughtful affair, raising many of the concerns of his feature work including "The World" and "Unknown Pleasures." Relying on careful observation rather than polemic, Jia documents the life of a fashion designer in the city, and tailors in rural areas.
The contrast between old China and new China is pronounced: The designer hosts an arty show in France, while one of the rural tailors is forced to close his business and take up a laboring job to make ends meet. It's a quiet, aesthetically pleasing film that makes its point with a minimum of fuss.
"Useless," which has played in several festivals before the New York Film Festival, should see more festival exposure, and could draw viewers to small upscale urban theaters.
The fashion designer Jia portrays is something of a maverick -- her concerns are more artistic than commercial. The first and longest section focuses on Ma Ke, a designer who's interested in discovering the expressive potential of clothing. She buries some of her creations so that they can "absorb the history of the soil," and exhibits them on statuesque models posing atop neon light boxes.
Out in the rural areas, such liberties are impossible. One tailor's business fails because cheap mass-produced clothes have rendered his skills redundant.
As always, Jia tries to slow down the frantic lifestyle of modern China so that it can be closely observed. The style is often reminiscent of a Maysles docu, but there are some direct-to-camera question and answer sessions.
Recent non-Chinese produced docu like "Manufactured Landscapes" have been more hard-hitting about China's massive social problems. But with patient viewing, Jia's film reveals the underlying split between the "two Chinas," one rich, modern, urban and optimisttic, the other impoverished, rural and desperate.