(director/writer: Jia Zhang-Ke; cinematographer: Yu Lik Wai; editor: Chow Keung; cast: Zhao Tao (Qiao Qiao), Zhao Wei Wei (Bin Bin), Wu Qiong (Xiao Ji), Zhou Qing Feng (Yuan Yuan), Wang Hong Wei (Xiao Wu), Bai Ru (Bin Bin’s Mother), Liu Xi An (Xiao ji’s Father), Xu Shou Linn (Sister Zhu), Ying Zi (The Concubine); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Shozo Ichiyama/Li Kit Ming; New Yorker Video; 2002-China, In Mandarin with English subtitles)

“One of the better films of the 21st century.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The gifted Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-Ke (“Pickpocket”/”Platform”), born in 1970, is thought of as the most promising filmmaker working today in China, someone who has his finger correctly on the growing trends in a quickly changing economy and social scene. In China his films are considered controversial and have circulated only on the black-market — something that is comically made apparent in a scene where one of the film’s protagonists is forced to sell the bootleg video Pulp Fiction from his bicycle cart. The loan shark gangster customer (Wang Hong Wei) requested Jia’s first two arthouse features and is disappointed he doesn’t have them for sale.

Unknown Pleasures is shot in glorious color on DV. The story takes place in China’s northern industrial city of Datong and follows the lives of two disenfranchised 19-year-olds, Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong), whose future is bleak as they aimlessly hang out in pool halls and with small-time hustlers, chain-smoke, half-heartedly look for work, ride their motorbikes aimlessly about a town they can’t escape from, attend disco dance halls and karaoke bars to get some kicks out of their dreary lives. There’s a running gag that Xiao Ji’s motorbike is always breaking down, which comes as a not too subtle warning to society not to rely on machines only to bring them progress and get them to some utopia.

The film is set in 2001, seemingly just after an American spy plane crashed and the Chinese government is exploiting that on TV for as much nationalistic propaganda as it could muster. There will later be a bombing of a factory site that kills over forty workers where the boys live, by a laid-off factory worker. It is reported on TV, but at first the damaging propaganda has sunk in to even those who don’t watch the news so that Bin Bin thinks the Americans are bombing.

For the two disaffected teenagers, fairly typical of the current ‘no future generation,’ the future is indeed bleak but, on the other hand, the future for the country is seemingly bright: China is set to be accepted as a member of the WTO, Beijing’s bid as the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics is seriously being considered, some people are winning the lottery or flourishing in their own businesses or becoming rich through various schemes, and a new superhighway is about to link Datong with Beijing.

Xiao Ji eyes a flashy young singer/dancer, Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), doing a promo for the Mongolian King Liquor Troupe auditions, a spot where the performers and free drinks lure in potential customers. The company’s motto that easily could have been written by a NYC ad agency is: “Art sets the stage. Let commerce perform on it.”

The low-key wearer of some cute looking peekaboo bangs and a cartoon lovers dreamy flame-sleeved shirt, Xiao Ji, is frustrated in his attempt to be with Qiao Qiao because she’s under the control of a 37-year-old small-time racketeer, who acts as her agent and mentor and lover — and as an added insult he was her former high school gym teacher before being bounced from the school. Meanwhile Bin Bin is seeing a studious girl Yuan Yuan (Zhou Qing Feng), who hold hands while they sit in a karaoke bar and sing along. She is about to attend a university in Beijing and study international trade, so she gets thrilled by the news shown on TV of the optimistic happenings over the WTO while he’s indifferent. Fate is taking them on different paths, as one line of the lyrics makes that clear: “Pursued love in vain all my life.”

Unknown Pleasures takes its Chinese title “Ren xiao yao”(translated as“Free of All Constraints”) from a poem by the fourth century B.C. Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi. It became the pop hit in 2001 that was sung in a few places in the film, including at the end when a policeman in the stationhouse forces Bin Bin to sing his favorite song.

Bin Bin’s retiring factory worker mother (Bai Ru), a targeted member of the outlawed Falun Gong sect, who hasn’t been paid in months, constantly gets on him for being a loser and puts it into his head to join the army. When he takes her up on that suggestion, the physical exam comes back with the news that he has a contagious hepatitis and is thereby rejected.

The two dejected youths have lost any hope for love or finding a career, and do not wish to live a long life. Out of desperation for either money or just some way to end their boredom, Bin Bin places a fake bomb under his jacket to rob the China Construction Bank in an ill-fated robbery, while Xiao Ji waits outside to drive the getaway motorbike. They have been so influenced by American money and pop culture, that the scene in Pulp Fiction when the couple suddenly robs a diner seems to these outsiders as good an idea as any they have come up with so far.

But Jia Zhang-Ke is after more than just relating the changing social and economic climate in the present, including the underlining police state that still exists, as he’s even more interested in the pervasive spiritual decline of China. He sees not only that the young generations are too alienated to participate in the possible boon, but that the boon itself is just as unrealistic as the teenager’s visions. His purpose as a filmmaker is to examine the country’s heartbeat as if he were the spiritual doctor and is reporting that the patient has built up too many hopes for the questionable future, a future that is based on materialistic thinking and one that is unconcerned about its long run negative social consequences.

The film is so powerful that it blurs the line between drama and a documentary, and could play as either. It’s a fiction that has in it some Robert Bresson, Quentin Tarantino, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Tsai Ming-Liang. It is the work of a filmmaker who knows how to rattle the cages of those looking for hope in the prisons they continue to build for themselves. One of the better films of the 21st century.

It was the Official Selection at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the 2002 New York Film Festival, and the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Unknown Pleasures Poster