Cinema in Quarantine: Jia Zhangke and Hu Bo

Image: Elyeser Szturm
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By Roberto Noritomi*

Commentary on the work of two exponents of contemporary Chinese cinema.

Two Chinese filmmakers deserve special attention for their daring criticism of the contradictions in China today. Jia Zhangke is an established veteran, with a list of renowned works; Hu Bo released only one film and then committed suicide at the age of 29. Despite the generational discrepancy and the number of works, it is worth some brief approximate considerations about his films and the respective readings of Chinese society.

The China inaugurated by Deng Xiao Ping seems to have found its best portrayer in the cinema of Jia Zhangke. Since it began to emerge, in the early 2000s, at European festivals, critics have become a consensus that their films capture with a striking realism the impact of the transformations that have occurred since the 1980s, with the policy of aggressive openness to the capitalism.

It is not an easy task for someone whose field of work is a gigantic economic development that has been engulfing hundreds of millions of people, altering huge topographies, intertwining the distant regions of a transcontinental country and projecting itself for decades. This explains why his cinema is so blatantly geographical and historical; with a strong temporal and imagery breath. There is no way to be different, after all, it is undeniable that this is a matter with epic tones. But don't expect Zhangke to be grandiloquent and picturesque; its epic lens is dry and dissonant.

In his most reverberated works, such as Leading (2000) in search of life (2006) a touch of sin (2013) and The mountains part (2015), there is a profusion of sequences, filmed in long shots from high heights or from valleys, in which horizons of mountains devastated by the mining industry overflow, ruins of ancestral villages demolished for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and vast and disorderly urban concentrations on the banks of the mighty Yangtze.

The scenes are often surrounded by construction sites where trucks and tractors cross paths and masses of workers wear themselves out in precarious production conditions. The most indelible mark of the films, however, is inscribed in the way of dealing with the broad temporal movement, or rather, in the representation of social changes traversed by generations, in a course of three decades, towards the consolidation of private enrichment, often unscrupulous, and unbridled consumerism.

In this overwhelming context, Zhangke's characters are beings uprooted and removed from small provinces to large centers, or the opposite, depending on the state's strategic engine. Hence they are always migrating, traveling along roads, rivers and railroads as passengers of the economic vector. In the dialogues, what you hear too much are references to places of destination and departure, all identifiable on the official and also affective map; in the face of such an unstable and depersonalized society, it is necessary to maintain some ballast (even if it is just the drawing of the extinct village on a banknote, as it happens with the miner Sanming in the film in search of life).

Each displacement is undoubtedly a biographical step embedded in the historical process, but in Zhangke this is central. It is China that moves and brings with it an immeasurable multitude of biographies. In this turmoil, for whatever objective reason, the characters show no resistance. Even so, they are strong and fearless figures, who strive to adapt to the adverse world that the market offers them within the broad national plan.

No one is there to block the long journey. They may even fail in their attempt at material achievement, but they do not resign or fall into simple resentment; they believe in the path of hard work or the options outside of it. They are characters who have nothing to oppose; don't talk much. In Zhangke's films, the images express themselves more than the characters; they are the ones who delineate and lead. The characters are exemplars of a resilient life, constrained by an unusual force that only seals blind and painful subjection.

Zhangke's look contains a serene bitterness, which points to the degeneration of lives without, however, falling into the tragic (with the exception of some episodes of a touch of sin). The merit there may be in the effort to put to the test a model of fae accumulation that offers opulence and feeds billions, but still does not design a new civilizational key.

Hu Bo

In its first and solitary realization, The elephant sitting still (2018), Hu Bo transits through the same territory as Zhangke, but the meeting between the two does not take place. The scenario is also the current China of immense scales, with huge buildings and factories, mining areas, demolition and debris in the streets; however, there is nothing in this film that comes close to any prospect of progress or profound historical transformations.

In contrast, Hu Bo opts for a very contained range of dramatic action and within the temporal limits of dawn to dusk on any given winter day. Dating and location do not matter; the city is nameless. The only place mentioned is Manzhouli Park, where legend has it that an elephant would inhabit that remains seated and still. From this park, what you have are planes with an aerial view of a completely snowy surface, indeterminate to the point of becoming an abstract appearance on the screen. Otherwise, everything seems suspended, in settings framed by a hazy and hazy atmosphere, where the hours pass slowly.

The fabric of the film, woven into long sequential shots, provides the stretching of this suspenseful experience. The “dead times” give the measure of the scenes. Each prosaic action is experienced in its fullness, without cuts, with the effective duration that fits it. Zhangke also faces this experience of elongated time, but the time of historical movement imposes itself and reduces everything to a tiny point in an endless line. An inescapable objectivity stamps its mark on individuals.

For Hu Bo, on the other hand, it is the individual drama that comes to prominence and fills the screen, relegating external reality to the background. The freely subjectivated camera, moving in traveling shots lengthy and tortuous, establishes this prevalence of the characters' gaze on the world and on themselves (which is sometimes reinforced by the blurred image of the character's surroundings and what he observes).

However, this emphasis on the subjectivation of the gaze is a negative and central symptom. It reflects a condition of malaise (“Life is a wasteland”, says a student), of alienation from the world. The elephant sitting still brings characters who are adrift. They are foreigners within their own family. All of them carry a chronic emotional mismatch with their family members, a fact that is presented to the viewer in the first contact he has with each character. Simultaneously, the institutions themselves are entrenched by the lack of solid foundations and anomie. Fathers and mothers exploit their children, the school supervisor is corrupt and perverse, gains are made in shady ways and through privileges, gangs operate within the state apparatus, etc.

In a society that bets on vertiginous growth and without clear parameters (“it doesn't matter what color the cat is, as long as it catches the mouse”), relationships are constituted in a venalized and hostile way. In Zhangke's cinema all this is given in an equally terrible way, but it is not something that poses a problem for most; as has been said, his characters are driven by a force to which they have no resistance. However, where Zhangke's characters seek some insertion, legally or illegally, Hu Bo's stand on the sidelines. This order appears to be invalid. There is a clear disconnection of meaning with the life offered to them by the current development model. They were unwilling to jump on the roaring locomotive of the future. They preferred another course: that of the immateriality of a legend in the mountains. For Hu Bo, opulence itself might mean nothing.

*Roberto Noritomi he holds a PhD in sociology of culture from USP.

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