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Grand Illusion 

To director Jia Zhangke, the shrinking planet is a lonely place

Thursday, Aug 18 2005
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Photo by Ricky WongThe films of the 35-year-old director Jia Zhangke haven’t been suppressed in America in the same way they have been in his native China, but they’ve been suppressed nonetheless. At home, Jia is an underground figure — the maker of feature films and shorts, all produced independently, banned by the Chinese government and available only on pirated tapes and DVDs. In America, he is the victim of a system of distribution and exhibition that finds increasingly little room for new Asian films that aren’t built around flights of kung fu fancy. Of Jia’s first three features, none received a commercial release in Los Angeles, and only one (Unknown Pleasures) has been available on video in this country until this week when Platform joins it.

To read Scott Foundas' review of The World, click here.

Yet Jia is not only, per Village Voice critic Dennis Lim, “the world’s greatest filmmaker under 40,” but the one with the keenest sense of what it means to be young and adrift, to feel trapped by your surroundings yet terrified to reach beyond them, whether you happen to live in China or in Chinatown. So it is authentic cause for celebration that Jia’s fourth and latest feature, The World, is not only his first to win the Chinese Film Bureau’s official seal of approval, but the first to open locally, courtesy of the New York-based distributor Zeitgeist Films, which has already announced dates for the movie in nearly two-dozen additional U.S. cities — from Bakersfield to Boston. At last year’s Toronto Film Festival, we spoke to Jia about his films and his newfound legitimacy.L.A. WEEKLY:What does it mean for you that The World will be the first of your films to receive an official release in mainland China?JIA ZHANGKE: In these seven years since Xiao Wu, it’s been a dream of mine to make an approved film, because all my films are about Chinese people and the way they live. Now my films can finally face my people in China. Also, it’s not just about me; it’s about uniting other young directors in China and getting more freedom in the film industry.Ironically, though, this film feels in many ways to be your most critical of present-day China, particularly in the way it shifts its focus from the Northern provinces to Beijing, which is really the heart of Chinese culture. Starting in the mid-1990s, Beijing has been modernized at a very fast pace, especially after they got the 2008 Olympics, but that has been damaging to individuals on an emotional level. To the outside observer, it may seem like China is really modern, but inside, it’s not. How people live individually and how they feel is different from what you see outside. Just like when you see the World Park, you may feel like you’ve seen all of China, and you’ve been to Paris and Manhattan without getting a visa, but really it’s just an illusion.This seems to be something that’s proliferating everywhere, not just in China — the notion that we can have access to the world, by visiting a theme park or logging on to the Internet, without actually going anywhere. It might seem like everybody is really connected, because it’s easier to communicate with each other now, but actually we’re lonelier. We’re more isolated from each other because we’re living in this fabricated digital world. It’s a new feeling of loneliness. Almost all of the characters in The World are, in one way or another, involved with counterfeits or simulations — the guards in the park play-acting as police, the performers dressed up as Indian belly dancers or geishas; the fashion designer making imitation European designs.It’s really about how you see yourself. People are constantly adjusting what they want to be and who they want to be, what kind of things they want to do. And it mostly depends on how they want other people to think of them. China’s in an up-and-down period right now. It’s not like the Cultural Revolution, when they actually physically tortured you, but it’s an emotional concept. Everyday, we make the choice to close ourselves off or to explore.

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