Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Platform


#74 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

The films of Zhang Ke Jia are like time-lapse images transforming both slowly and rapidly before your eyes. Finally what you're seeing at the end (of a shot or, particularly in this case, of the movie) bears little resemblance to what you saw at the beginning, though the route of this change is not easily re-traceable ("how did we get here?" could be the epitaph to each of Jia's films). This transformation is slow because Jia's camera takes its time. In Platform there are no reverse shots, no close-ups, and almost no cuts during scenes (I can think of at least one exception: the provincial theatrical touring group rushes up to an elevated railway in a desolate landscape; suddenly we are on the tracks ourselves, facing away from the train which is rushing off behind the camera, while we stare into the cast's faces as they grin and wave, exhausted). The transformation is also rapid, however, because so much happens within a fixed time frame or spatial plane: a building dissolves into dust (or takes off like a space rocket) in Still Life, a mini-universe is revealed by the ascension of an elevator in The World (a film less defined by fluid long takes than Platform or Still Life, though they are still a part of the texture), in Platform hearts are broken and futures fixed in a lovers' discussion which ends with one character proclaiming (ever time-conscious) "You're too late" and walking away. If that last transformation seems less dramatic than the previous one, don't be fooled. Within each shot, in itself a miniature movie, Platform fixes its gaze on a moment, albeit one always in flux (as moments always are). But over the movie as a whole, there is a more rapid physical and spiritual transformation than anything in either Still Life or The World. That's because Platform takes as its subject the still-bizarre mutation of China from a totalitarian communist workers' state to a semi-capitalist ultra-modern society in the 1980s. An obsession with transformation and mutation are not only aesthetic strategies in Platform, they are the very meat of the film, its text, context, and subtext. Here, form and content fit together perfectly as hand in glove, which is good, because nothing else in the film is so easily malleable.

When Platform opens, the grainy cinematography is enveloped in darkness (Jia would seem to have shot on not particularly sensitive 16mm film, though the only technical details provided by IMDb read "printed on 35mm"). We are in a village with a touring troupe, performing a Maoist pageant exuberantly to an enthusiastic audience (at least that was my perception; others have described them as indifferent and bored - it's hard to say since everyone seems compelled to clap). The Cultural Revolution is a few years in the past, but we are obviously visiting a society defined by that movement's aftershocks. Yet there are cracks in the facade. Cui Mingliang (Wang Hongwei) gets on the bus long after everyone else has boarded, and he's berated by the troupe leader, asked if he knows what collectivization means. But Mingliang hardly seems concerned and in the next few scenes we see him adopting bellbottoms, defining himself as an intellectual worker rather than a physical one, and standing out from the crowd dressed in their blue slacks, workers' coats, and peasant caps. He's a harbinger of things to come - before long, the previously severe and dogmatic troupe leader is relaxing, telling the actors that they will soon be incorporating pop music (which he carefully and humorously describes as relaxing and enjoyable) into their routine. Further into the film, this rather opportunistic individual has become laid-back and genial with his troupe, his entire attitude shifting dramatically in the space of a few years and some major reforms.

General societal changes are mentioned in the dialogue, occasionally in obviously expositional ways, at other times more subtly. As Deng Xiaopang's "Open Door" policy facilitates Westernization and the shift to a market economy on a national scale, we see the transformation before our eyes in ways spoken words could only hint at. The sharpest transition occurs when we're inside Mingliang's dark home (there's no electricity in early scenes) and his mother shows him a postcard sent by travelling friend Zhang Jun which reads, "The world outside is great!" (here we cut to a close-up of the card, one of the few cuts and close-ups in the film.) The next sequence is the sunniest so far in the movie; it appears to be a summer day, and Mingliang wanders into frame wearing a tank-top, slinging a BB gun which he casually points in the air, while children chant playfully in the background. A foreign rock song wafts through the air, and Zhang arrives carrying a stereo, dressed as colorfully and casually as Mingliang. As the neighborhood youths gather around the traveller and his music, we see that all of them are clothed in sporty gear, their behavior suddenly loose and seemingly carefree. In the invisible space between these two scenes, the village of Fengyeng has undergone a radical shift.

This is not to suggest that liberalization is portrayed in purely positive terms. If the early world of the film seems cold and forbidding, it quickly becomes clear that the "new world" contains some of the same problems, and new ones to boot. There is not only the poignancy of seeing an old world pass away - a millennia-old Chinese culture gone with the wind (not to mention a rigid Communist ideology which had in itself required major adjustments) - but also the sense that what is replacing the previous life is not solid or tangible. That the "new China" is somehow chimerical, the loss real but the gain hard to get a fix on. Jia hardly romanticizes Maoism, and it is part of his film's triumph that he does not set up a false dichotomy between the past and future, in which one is a desirable Eden, the other the Fall (or, put another way, one the fettered police state, the other a free society). It seems pretty clear that the characters, particularly the younger ones, want out of the repressive and stagnant village life shown early in the picture, due partly to the restless energy of all youths, partly to the ideological rigidity and paranoia that quite literally oppresses them. Yet it's worth remembering that alongside economic growth and cultural free trade, China maintained a dictatorship - and that somehow beneath the dynamic changes in the surface of these lives and places, the characters are still not truly in charge of their lives or the path their country can take.

As for the film's form and structure, it reminds me of a musical performance where, one by one, different instruments are swapped out until by the end we are hearing an entirely different sound - yet the change was so gradual we cannot fix one point at which the complete change occurred. Even before that scene I mentioned earlier, there are moments when a girl gets a perm, when there are arguments about books being read; and after that scene, the troupe still performs the propagandistic road shows, idiosyncratic as they may have become. By the conclusion of Platform, this has changed too, and now rock guitarists and go-go dancers have taken the stage, where they perform the title song. "Platform" is first heard in a parked van as the performers wait for a passing train to approach; here it is pregnant with meaning, but by the time it's incorporated in the show it's become kitschy and half-hearted. Even the markers of change have become rote, taken for granted, and so the last ties to the past are broken, the bridge burned. Let us return to that word "pregnant" however; I can't think of a better descriptor for the warmth and fascination Jia's films hold. There is something conveyed in his fluid use of camera, screen space, and setting which allows every shot to hold worlds - if the movie is a bit of a satire on China's "Open Door" policy, it embodies a more honest "open door" policy itself. This is "open" filmmaking at its best, in which the viewer's mind and eyes can wander, in which simple set-ups contain multitudes, in which, while guided, one is never 100% sure what one is supposed to think, and doubtful that the "should" even exists. I've managed to convey little of this here, particularly with the focus on the historical-cultural elements of the movie, fascinating as they are. This sense of openness, of film-watching as an adventure, of viewership and filmmaking both as exploration, can best be experienced by watching the film itself. I strongly encourage you to do so. All cinema exists in a state of permanent fluctuation; this film knows it, foregrounds it, and makes itself one with the transformative power of the movies, and of life.

Previous film: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Next: The House of Mirth


Cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark

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