The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Platform (2000/China/dir. Jia Zhangke) appeared at #87 on my original list.
What it is • When the film begins in 1979, the characters are all part of a traveling performance group. They dress similarly in baggy tunics and shapeless slacks, and their songs are all revolutionary odes to the wonders of the recently-deceased Chairman Mao. Their hometown of Fenyang is shown in wintry isolation, a rural hamlet in the middle of nowhere characterized by barren streets and homes with few modern amenities. Parents, police, and the elder troop leader scold these restless young performers when they step out of line and portraits of Lenin and Stalin adorn the walls of theaters whose most risque offerings are thirty-year-old Indian entertainments. When the film ends in 1990, the characters have split off from one another: some finally settle down after years on the road, others disappear from the town and/or narrative without explanation. The performance group, last we see of it anyway, has turned into a mixture of rock guitarists and go-go dancers. Fenyang is under constant construction and televisions play soap operas while tape players boom pop songs from every household; when we visit a movie theater near the end of the film, it's showing animated sex. The older generation is absent either literally (one character's father opens a shop and sleeps there with a mistress, never returning home) or figuratively. We experience these incremental changes as circumstantial details, just as the characters would: background color to a love affair, diversion during a long tedious drive through the desert, decoration to a scene of domestic dissolution. There isn't exactly a "story" here. Instead the film unfolds like life, with long takes (there is almost no cutting within scenes and the camera tends to stand still) capturing individual incidents, sometimes years apart, which coalesce to form an overpowering whole. Personal and cultural history intertwine into a palpable experience that can only be felt, rather than than explained.
Why I like it •
I'm an absolute sucker for any movie that depicts transformation. Conveying this phenomenon is one of cinema's greatest achievements, along with its ability to hone in on a specific moment and let it linger. Platform captures both these qualities; no wonder it immediately appealed to me when I saw it a few years ago. That viewing followed closely after two of Jia's subsequent films, Still Life and The World, both of which impressed me with their ability to mix conceptual ambition, stylistic invention, and documentary observation. Either of those films, especially The World, could have ended up on this list. Why did I chose Platform? In some ways this is the purest, simplest, most grounded of Jia's films (I would later catch up with 24 City and Unknown Pleasures as well). But it's also the most epic, spanning a decade and focusing on a truly colossal subject: China's opening to the West. Above all, I love Platform's ability to capture that quiet feeling of wonder, ennui, and excitement knotted together until you can't exactly distinguish one emotion from another. This film depicts the past with an unblinking documentary lens, creating a sense of nostalgia for the present. These are memories captured at the moment they were born, as fleeting as they are eternal.
How you can see it • Unfortunately, it looks like Platform is no longer available on Netflix (it's in the dreaded "saved" category). Hopefully they bring it back! The film is available on Region 1 DVD, and I included a clip from it at 2:35 in "The Millennial Mood" (a chapter of my "32 Days of Cinema" video series). I also offered a full-length review of the film when I first watched it for "Best of the 21st Century?" in 2010.
What do you think? • What other films capture the changes of an era in similarly subtle fashion? How does Jia compare to other Chinese filmmakers of his generation, as well as to earlier generations? Do you find the characters sympathetic/interesting, or see them simply as stand-ins for Jia to depict the passage of time? Do you find some of the events hard to follow? Does the film's elliptical nature work for you, in evoking the way change "sneaks up on us"? Although the film is very specific in its time and place, do its observations and incidents feel universal? If you are familiar with Chinese life during the 1980s, does the film accurately represent the feeling of that time to you? Which sequences or moments in the film do you find most evocative, touching, or absorbing?
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Previous week: Place de la Republique (#88)
Next week: Miraculous Virgin (#86)