Jia Zhangke finds the calmer moments in China’s breakneck growth. “I focus on how individuals are quietly affected by these changes,” the director says. “You have to use slowness to capture the fast.”
Mr. Jia’s films are indeed slow. There are long silences and meandering conversations. The camera lingers on faces, roads and, at one point, a telephone. There are romantic scenes, but not of the Hollywood variety. The protagonist of Mr. Jia’s 1997 film, “Xiaowu,” is a pickpocket who wears ill-fitting blazers and oversized glasses. He falls hard for a karaoke hostess, which leads to the following conversation:
“Will you be my man now?”
“If you like.”
“You’re my man now!”
I meet Mr. Jia in a conference room at the Museum of Modern Art, which is hosting the director’s first retrospective in the U.S. Mr. Jia is dressed in black and wearing sunglasses indoors, which I chalk up to his status as a star director. He later explains that he spent too many hours editing in front of a computer screen, and now his eyes are overly sensitive to light.
The retrospective’s organizer, Jytte Jensen, calls Mr. Jia “one of the most significant chroniclers of our time.” She says Mr. Jia re-creates the pasts of those Chinese who have been “written totally out of history, who have no place in this new, modern world . . . people who have no tradition of being depicted in Chinese art.”
The 39-year-old director grew up in Fenyang, in China’s northern Shanxi province. Mr. Jia films the kind of people he grew up around—petty thieves, laid-off workers, aimless youths. The Chinese government has not always appreciated this realist approach. In 1999, after “Xiaowu,” Chinese authorities banned Mr. Jia from making films. This was partly because Mr. Jia never went through the required process of clearing his works with official censors. He believes that the film’s content also played a role. “Xiaowu” humanized a thief and “gave him a voice.”
Jia Zhangke: A Retrospective
The Museum of Modern Art
Through March 20
Ricky Wong / MoMAFilm still from “Shijie” (The World), 2004, directed by Jia Zhangke, from the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective.
Mr. Jia ignored the government ban and proceeded to surreptitiously shoot and edit “Platform” (2000), an epic film that follows a performance troupe from 1979 to 1989. But Mr. Jia soon grew tired of making films on the sly. “The World” (2004) was his first government-sanctioned film. The films that followed, “24 City,” “Still Life” and “I Wish I Knew,” were also made with official approval.
Why did he decide to go above board? “If my films can’t be shown in China, they have zero impact,” Mr. Jia explains.
But in deciding to comply with the authorities, Mr. Jia weighed in on a larger debate: Can you produce great art without freedom? “It’s the other way around,” Mr. Jia corrects me. “A society can’t obtain freedom without art.” He explains, “If we live in an environment that lacks freedom, art is the most direct way to promote change and give people more room to live freely.” Mr. Jia says film directors can highlight social issues and make them a topic of public debate.
He continues to do this for those Chinese left on the platform as the development train rockets past. “Still Life” focuses on the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges Dam, which displaced more than a million people. “24 City” features interviews with workers at a factory that was torn down to make way for luxury apartments. That film combines real testimonials with monologues read by actors. One of the monologues blends the true stories of many different people. Mr. Jia explains: “It’s not anthropology, not history.” Instead, his films reflect a collective experience. His larger goal is to preserve the individual stories behind China’s transformation. He says that for his most recent work, “I Wish I Knew,” he interviewed people about their memories of Shanghai, another rapidly changing city.
The authorities may tolerate Mr. Jia’s work, but that doesn’t mean they like it. His 2006 “Still Life” fared poorly at the Chinese box office, in part, Mr. Jia says, because movie theaters would show his films only in the morning or, say, at 2 p.m. “There was concern that ‘Still Life’ was ‘unsafe,'” he says, because it reflects China’s “real situation.”
He also had to compete with the likes of Zhang Yimou’s big-budget historical drama “The Curse of the Golden Flower.” (Mr. Zhang, the designer of the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremonies, has a much friendlier relationship with the Chinese government.) Mr. Jia says there is a “war” between independent and mainstream, or “monopoly,” films. China’s independent film movement, which sprang to life in the 1990s, has a lot of catching up to do. From the early 1990s to about 2000, young directors’ most valuable, dynamic work had no way of being shown publicly, Mr. Jia says. “And during those 10 years, the commercial films were cultivating their audience. . . . So when we were finally able to show our work a decade later, we confronted an audience that had gotten used to Hollywood-style and Hong Kong martial-arts films.”
In China, art and politics are intertwined. Last summer, Mr. Jia pulled out of the Melbourne International Film Festival because he did not wish to appear alongside Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur leader whom Beijing sees as an instigator of violence in Xinjiang. (Ms. Kadeer was a subject of a documentary in the festival.) “I’m not her supporter,” Mr. Jia says of Ms. Kadeer. “If I went I would be seen as a supporter.” He will face similar choices down the line. He says it’s not clear if China is becoming more open or more tightly controlled. “It’s always vacillating,” he says.
Mr. Jia expresses the challenges of working in this environment in his six-minute film “The Condition of Dogs” (2001). He shot a real-life dog market in Datong, a city in Shanxi province, focusing his gaze on a cloth sack filled with puppies. The bag writhes and the animals whine. Eventually one dog chews a hole in the bag and pokes his head through.
Mr. Jia says that “The Condition of Dogs” reflects his own challenges as a filmmaker in China. “Even in a closed, dark sack, a small dog can chew his way out,” he explains. He adds, with a happy laugh, “He’s a rebellious dog!”
But what about the others? I ask. What about those who are still in the dark?
Mr. Jia responds, “Someone just needs the courage to go first.”
Ms. Parker is a senior fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.