“Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang” is the result of the unlikely pairing of the acclaimed Brazilian director Walter Salles (“Central Station”) and the great Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke. While filmmaking styles and concerns would seem to separate the man from Rio from his subject more than the distance between their hometowns (17,128 km), his documentary is a fascinating and intimate portrait of Jia’s life and work in (and reflecting) a country undergoing convulsive change.
Salles has said, “When I saw ‘Xiao Wu’ and later ‘Platform,’ I was completely taken by (his) visionary talent…Sometimes we doubt that film might still be the place where we can resort to better understand the world around us. Jia Zhangke’s films are fundamental to grasp the complexity of the culture he unveils. He brought cinema back to where it belongs–to the heart of the discussion. ‘The World’ and ‘Still Life’ reaffirmed and deepened that perception.”
Exploring literal terrain and that of memory, Salles travels with Jia back to Fenyang, in Shanxi Province in Northern China and to other locations (where over nearly 20 years he has he shot his films) including the World Park (“famous sites from five continents”) in Beijing. Salles also documents Jia speaking about his work to a packed auditorium at the Cultural Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing where he is a professor of experimental art. (Sitting on the stage in a big club chair, his feet barely touch the floor.)
They visit Jia’s early childhood home on a crumbling courtyard, where an elderly neighbor affectionately recalls nickname, Jai Lailai (bad boy), and his mother in her roomy, modern apartment. She misses the courtyard and its apple trees. Discussing the transformation of Fenyang (and China), Jia says that change is inevitable, “What I can do is record everything in my films.”
Interviews with actors (including Zhao Tao, Jia’s frequent lead and his wife since 2012, who talks about their unlikely meeting, and their collaborations) and other colleagues add to the film, as do well-chosen excerpts from many of his films. But it was the choice to shoot Jia in the streets and interiors that he knows well, talking about life, family, work (and, with ambivalence, that without pirated DVDs, his films would be mostly unseen at home), politics, China’s history, the internet, globalization, that makes the film more personal and cinematic than many talking head documentaries.
“Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang” will open on Friday, May 27 at Anthology Film Archives and will run through Thursday, June 2. Three of Jia’s films (“Mountains May Depart,” “A Touch of Sin” and “Still Life”) will also be shown, on Saturday, May 28 and Sunday, May 29.