the opposite of stage fright (or, who the hell is zhong ping?)

Jonathan Rosenbaum, a critic I normally agree with or at least can take something useful from, calls Jia Zhang-ke’s Platform “one of the greatest of all Chinese films.” But I found this film almost impossible to watch, and not terribly rewarding when I did finally finish it.

Some critics have called the film — which Rosenbaum summarizes as “The story… of the Cultural Revolution’s aftermath for about a decade, noting shifts in values and lifestyles, culture and economy… as witnessed by five actors in a provincial traveling theater troupe” — boring, but this is not entirely right. Or at least, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The film is boring, but there are many films I like more than Platform which, moment-to-moment, are far more boring: almost anything by Tarkovsky, and many films by Godard. But Tarkovsky always has a story to tell and definite characters to portray, and if he spends forever developing them, one never doubts the complete cohesion of his vision, from start to finish. And neither Tarkovsky or Godard was ever afraid to use the complete box of tools available to him.

Jia, on the other hand, uses certain strategies over and over again, and in a very particular way. He shoots everything at a distance — sometimes recreating the proscenium arch in which the actors perform, sometimes giving us picturesque National Geographic landscapes, sometimes observing interactions in a cramped apartment or shop from the farthest possible point in the room — but always, always, away, away, away, as far away as he can get. He abjures not only the close-up, but the medium shot. When he shoots the troupe’s performances, he often seems to be shooting from the back row. Characters are often shot in profile, or from the back, or through a window or a door or framed handsomely in an arch. And because the alleged “story” spans decades (possibly), characters change hairstyles and clothes from scene to scene. And, perhaps most maddeningly, characters’ names are almost never used except in large group scenes or when they are off-screen. (And in the group scenes, people often don’t look directly at each other, instead staring sullenly into the concrete somewhere.)

The result of these strategies — which make rhetorical sense in a film about the struggle of the individual to break out of collectivism — is unfortunately that we are entirely distanced from the characters, to the point that at the end of the film, I didn’t know who these characters were. And I don’t mean, “I didn’t know who these characters were” in the sense of “Kevin Spacey’s performance is full of fireworks, but ultimately shallow — at the end, we never really get a sense of who he is.” I mean I literally didn’t know who was who.

At first I was trying to connect names to people (I did eventually nail down “Zhang Jun”), but after a while I gave up and started assigning them long titles: “Angular Jaw Long-Faced Moptop,” “Guy with Glasses #1,” “Fat Bearded Man” (who may or may not have been “Guy with Glasses #2” earlier in the movie). And the women were so nondescript that I couldn’t even distinguish between them. Even Jia seems to acknowledge this; near the end, the only two female characters we spend much time with are a couple of twins, whom he also dresses alike. They are distinguishable only by hairstyle. (And are they really new characters? Are they really twins? Or are they the same as the two — or three — girls from the beginning of the film?) Frankly, Rosenbaum’s assertion that the film is about “five actors” seems like either a cheat from the press kit or a presumptuous guess; I put the number at somewhere between ten and twenty.

This is not some backdoor attempt to say that Chinese people all look alike. But Jia’s technique is so… not just distancing, but actually off-putting… that we not only lack the visual clues to make distinctions between characters, but we can’t distinguish them on the basis of behavior, either. They all behave the same way, staring at the ground, smoking, slouching listlessly on an endless number of couches. When we are close enough to see the characters, they aren’t doing anything to make themselves memorable. The few moments of real action all take place across a vast gulf of space; the actors are rendered tiny and indistinguishable.

In what seems like it ought to be a key emotional moment in the film, one of the female characters goes to a clinic to get an abortion. While she and her boyfriend and another friend all sit and respire in the waiting room, we are tolerably close to them — “close” by Jia’s standards anyway, meaning we are watching them through a door. But a minute or two later, when she pitches a fit and refuses to go through with it, all the characters are crowded down at the end of a long hallway, miniscule in screen space and anyway blocking each other from the camera. The transition from the waiting room to the hall is a nice move, and you have to give Jia credit for his unusual choice here — but since we’ve never seen these characters in close-up, since we are, in fact, not that sure which one of the girls this is, the emotional impact of the scene is entirely muted. We feel we’ve missed something.

Again, I understand these choices from an intellectual standpoint — the characters are trapped in social tableaux beyond their control; to focus on individuals or give them identity would be contrary to their philosophical experience of themselves. But to then attempt to tell a story about — or even give sketches of — individuals and their problems seems either poorly thought-through or an attempt to have it both ways.

And so Jia’s film works best in moments which have nothing to do with the individual characters but instead focus on collective work and collective boredom. Early on, a group of guys hang out atop an old, crumbling wall, singing and watching traffic; when a certain bus comes by, they all holler and throw clods of dirt at its roof as it passes under them. Later, the troupe wait in a desolate, mountainous area near a train track; when the train comes, they pelt after it on foot, running across the plain and up the concrete rise to the trestle, almost catching it. Later still, couples descend in staggered pairs to what seems to be an underground club; they lean against the wall and hold hands and watch a semi-educational video about various sexual positions. Then the video becomes a glowing electronic line drawing of a couple who morph their way through making love, a glowing spark passing back and forth between them. In another scene, some of the boys try their hand at a kind of punk performance; while the band plays grinding rock music onstage, the singer comes down into the audience, shaking hands with several people, then punching one in the jaw.

These scenes are great — evocative and fascinating. The representation of a group immobilized by social circumstance is terrific. But there is nothing to balance that representation — no sense that these people will ever exist as individuals. And consequently, like much collectivist art, this film makes its points but fails to connect with its audience — who, after all, hardly go to movies to find boredom and anonymity.

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