Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Jia Zhang Ke’s The World, a realist rendering of contemporary Beijing youth, and Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, a romantic phantasia of late 1960s Hong Kong, stand at two distinct points on the aesthetic field of new Asian cinema. While both might be considered “art films” (with all the accolades and approbation the term implies) they couldn’t be more different in execution and affect. The World, like Jia’s previous films Unknown Pleasures and Platform, records an excessively present world, where time seems to have no future and the past is something that is only implied. 2046, on the other hand, manically tries to recapture a lost past (though not, I think, in a Proustian sense; memory in À la recherche du temps perdu is for the most part involuntary, whereas Wong’s characters recount and embellish their pasts voluntarily, even and especially when they try to escape their pasts). In 2046 only the past and future are represented on screen. The present is just a voice. The World in contrast is emphatically present, and proceeds in long, medium-shot takes that have come to typify they style of certain Asian filmmakers (one wouldn’t want to call them a school, for the style can be traced across cultures, from Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang to Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Shinji Aoyama…and perhaps even further afield to Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan). Single shots may last several minutes or more, with only the most minimal of movements taking place on the margins of the screen. Audience tolerance for this style can be very low. Several couples walked out of The World at my screening when certain scenes passed the minute mark with little or no dialogue. I find the languors rewarding, however, and view them as a generous invitation from the filmmaker to think about what we’re seeing and hearing, to trace the associations and ideas presented throughout the film, as opposed to the immediate reaction demanded from most mainstream cinema. My thought processes are so heightened during Jia’s films that leaving the theater and going outside into the real world seems like embarking on a long nap. 2046 is just as demanding, though it doesn’t ask the viewer to swim in the lake of long takes; rather, its asks that the viewer walk along a slowly-developing narrative path full of detours, backtracks, and imagined futures. Though many scenes in 2046 are certainly long, Wong employs a colorful, rich, mind-meltingly beautiful cinematography (thank you, Christopher Doyle – your cinematography moves me) that is something akin to liquid cinema. The effect is almost the opposite of The World’s: when the film ends (I’ve seen it twice now) I feel that I’ve awakened from a long, inspiring dream. These two films, so different in style and method, serve as a slap to the face of mainstream cinema’s universal cretinization*.

I’ve heard many critics claim that since The World is the first of Jia’s films to receive distribution in mainland China (i.e. the first of his films not to be censored by the nominally Communist government) it must have very little political dimension. Don’t listen to ‘em. Like 2046, The World investigates the various courses and discourses of desire under the sign of capitalism. Just as Platform critiqued the misery of the Cultural Revolution and the slow hope of economic liberalization, The World critiques the soulless simulacra (okay, I hate the word but it’s unavoidable in a film that takes place in a theme park replica of our small-world, complete with mini Eiffel tower and mini New York skyline) of neo-liberalism and globalization, where everything is on the market, including bodies and lives. When critics say the film is apolitical, they assume that most political Chinese filmmakers would only criticize the repression and world-view of the Chinese government, not realizing that it is the critics’ own Western-style economic system that is receiving the brunt of the barbs.

*Okay, not all mainstream cinema is terrible. Some of it is quite good. And all of it deserves serious critical consideration. But the bulk of it depends on an instant reaction from its audience that is the enemy of critical thought.

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