Zhantai (2000)


(director/writer: Jia Zhang-Ke; cinematographer: Yu Lik Wai; editor: Jing Lei Kong; music: Yoshihiro Hanno; cast: Wang Hong-wei (Cui Minliang), Liang Jing-dong (Zhang Jun), Zhao Tao (Yin Ruijuan), Yang Tiang-yi (Zhong Ping), Bo Wang (Yao Eryong); Runtime: 150; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Shozo Ichiyama/Kit Ming Li; New Yorker Films; 2000-Hong Kong/Japan/France-in Mandarin with English subtitles)
“Impressive though slow moving epic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jia Zhang-Ke’s second feature (“Xiao Wu”), which took a year to shoot and features a cast of over 100 mostly nonprofessional actors, is a 150-minute marathon of a film. It’s an impressive though slow moving epic about change in the China from 1979 to 1990 that has been streamlined 40-minutes off its theater release time with the editing help and approval from the director. It’s set in Jia’s country inland northern China hometown of Fenyang (near Beijing) in Shanxi province, a place undergoing constant rebuilding. That setting acts as a metaphor, as the troupe performers from Fenyang never can return home to a place that’s stable.

“Platform” ambitiously attempts to mark the political, social, economic, and cultural changes that faced the People’s Republic of China during that tumultuous and most significant decade. It follows in the period after the death of Mao in 1976 and how under its new leader Deng reinvented itself following the hurtful Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). These are the broad historical aims; the time frame chosen is the period Jia became energized as an adult (the director was born in 1970). It’s interesting that Jia chooses to emphasize the cultural and fashion changes over the others and does it mostly through the music (the film takes its title from a popular 1980s Chinese song), which begins with the opening traditionalist propaganda number in 1979 where the featured players in a state-run Fenyang Peasant Culture Group mime a steam train as it chugs along towards Chairman Mao’s birthplace of Shaoshan. When the group was privatized during the mid-1980s it plays Western-styled pop music, once banned, and re-forms into another icky act as an All Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band. Jia points out that when his country was still in the grip of “Mao Zedong thought,” the young people preferred listening to illegal broadcasts on Taiwan radio and did it despite the risk of being caught by the authorities. But during Deng’s “open door” policy someone like the people’s favorite Teresa Teng could be played in public. Also Western writings from the likes of Nietzche and Freud became available, and one had many more choices than just reading Mao or Marx. In this changing period capitalist consumerism and the idea of personal wealth is on the rise, and love songs and Taiwanese pop culture are publicly introduced. But old friendships become strained and there are new psychological problems to deal with in such a turbulent new world.

The film focuses primarily on four actors in their twenties who are performers in the Fenyang troupe: Cui Minliang (Wang Hong-wei), electrical guitar player, his sometimes girlfriend Yin Ruijuan (Zhao Tao), whose specialty is as a singer and dancer, her closest friend, singer Zhong Ping (Yang Tiang-yi), and Zhong’s boyfriend Zhang Jun (Liang Jing-dong). We never get to know what they are thinking but through their eyes we see a China that few Westerners have observed from such a close vantage point, which is the beauty and importance of the film. The film jumps from one vignette to the next that is played out in the bleakness of the countryside setting where the troupe is sometimes riding in their battered blue tour bus in the dusty roads, or stopping after a breakdown to see a train for the first time, or playing in chintzy factory halls, or outdoor courtyards. They are going somewhere, but no one is exactly sure where they are going. Though for America, they are poised in the near-future to challenge them economically–which is coming a long way from their primitive materialistic ways under Mao. It’s a must-see film for those who want to gain an insight into modern China that is objective, intelligently presented, highly personal and rich in detail.

Visually sumptuous with long fixed-camera shots, the film embraces the troupe as comrades in an ongoing struggle that is spiritually void but materialistically all-encompassing, as they must now try on their own to find a place in this new China where they feel displaced (most have left the troupe to get gigs such as tax collectors). For me, the film recalls the historical epics of Theo Angelopoulos such as his 1975 The Travelling Players. Though Jia has mentioned he was most influenced by Chan Kaige’s ‘first modern film to emerge from China,’ the 1984 “Yellow Earth.” It also greatly resembles the historical films of noted Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Jia’s filmmaking problems revolve around the the fuzziness of the story line and that the doings of the characters becomes blurred at times. Also the laconic pacing made the film seem tedious, as it never fully drew me into any of the characters as much as it brilliantly reflected the mood of an ambivalent China that’s ripe to be discovered anew.