Although Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye have their own distinctive styles of cinematic expression and storytelling approach in making The world and Suzhou River, they both seek to portray the lives of non-heroic characters, that are influenced by the larger social vortex of precipitous reforms and pursuing happiness by all means. By expressing their own ideals and attitudes in the films, the filmmakers convey a sense of nostalgia for the past and an inconspicuous critique of capitalist influenced society in China.
The main characters in both films are city-dwellers who lead monotonous lives working to make money. In The World, Zhao Xiao Tao, the heroine, is a folk dance performer at the Beijing World Park. Hoping for a better life, she left from home in Shaanxi to this isolated theme park outside of Beijing. Her boyfriend, Chen Taisheng, patrols on the miniature Eiffel Tower in the world park as a security guard. Similarly, in Suzhou River, the main characters are not well-to-do either. The unseen main character and narrator, a videographer for hire, wanders along the chaotically built-up riverside factories, abandoned warehouses and fishing boats; he captures the shabby landscape of Shanghai’s dark side with imageries of poverty, social underdogs and 1990s’ urban reality. Through the camera lens, viewers can see his brief romance with Meimei, a night club dancer who lives on a houseboat and performs in an aquarium dressed as a mermaid. The other main character, Mardar, is a motorcycle courier, who is hired to drive a teenager girl Moudan across the town each day to her aunt. Unlike those allegorical and epic style films made by their predecessors, these films tend to focus on the lives and fates of men and women in the lower social class, as a quietly rebellious and courageous gesture against advocates of heroic figures in Chinese main melody films. Furthermore, the filmmakers not only depict mundane everyday life but also delve into a wide spectrum of social experiences and issues such as criminal activities, alcoholism, bohemian lifestyle, prostitution, migrant workers and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Examples include Mardar’s abduction of Moudan, the unseen videographer’s drinking problem, Anna, the Russian performer’s secret prostitution at a Karaoke club, and Meimei’s nontraditional inhabitance in a boat.
These characters in both Jia and Lou’s films are deeply influenced by the larger social context in three dimensions. First of all, the worship of money and status in the society has a dominating effect on people’s judgment and behaviors. Mardar and his smuggler friends kidnap Moudan for RMB400, 000. For a share of this ransom, Mardar betrays his lover driving her to suicide and Lao B embraces his partner Xiao Hong with a knife. When Xiao Tao’s ex-boyfriend visits, it is revealed during three way conversation at the small restaurant that Taisheng is jealous of his former counterparts’ success and insecure about his own trivial status as a security guard in a park. He dreams about going abroad but he could never go. After the incident, his suspicion of Xiao Tao’s loyalty rose, which lead to his attempt to rape her in order to prove their love relationship. His uncertainty and self-doubt, in fact, derive from his belief that money and status is everything; without money, his girlfriend will leave him.
Secondly, the values of morals and ethics deteriorate as China turns into a money-oriented world. Money plays the primordial role in the genesis and subsistence of capitalism. As capital reforms take place on every layer of Chinese social and cultural structure, love relationships are being commoditized and women are objectified. As portrayed in the films, Meimei, is used as an ornament in a bar, dressed up as a mermaid, swimming around an aquarium half naked, to attract men’s sexual interests as well as their wallets. Similarly, Anna put herself to prostitution in desperation for money. A fat middle aged tourist approached Xiao Tao offering money and jewelries in exchange for sex. He seems confident of himself and thinks it is a good bargain for Xiao Tao. The moral and ethical qualities endorsed in the socialist China no longer exist at present in the post-socialist China.
Ultimately, with the fast flow of money transactions and commodity exchange, the characters, stuck between their idealistic dreams and the harsh reality. They need to constantly deal with their sense of loss, anxiety and frustration in the face of China’s quickly changing cityscape, just like how the videographer tumbles around the baffling relationship with Meimei who keeps him at an arm’s lengths and plays hide and seek. In the other film, tourists come to the World Park to visit fake versions of famous sites from all over the world. As Jia described in his interview with Valerie Jaffee, “To me, it makes for a very sorrowful scene…This is what Chinese reality is like…We are living in a globalized age, in a world saturated by mass media, in an international city, but despite all that, the problems we’re facing are our own problems.”
The problems Jia talks about refer to the danger of marginalization and social alienation in China’s increasingly fast growing and globalized post-socialist condition.
Despite the situation in which they find themselves, the characters in Jia and Lou’s films remain full of hope and seek happiness in numerous ways. Perhaps the night club in Suzhou River, “Happy Tavern”, is a metaphor for the chaotic, flashy, yet sometimes tasty world they live in, where they deal with problems in their own ways. The videographer finds relaxation in observing the city on a boat, drifting along the river while drinking vodka. Meimei discovers her ideal of love, from the story of Moudan from Mardar; she eventually leaves to pursue her dream of “Find me if you love me.” Mardar attends his quest of looking for Moudan and finds her at last. Mardar and Moudan’s deaths together in the Suzhou River after drinking their favorite vodka can also be interpreted as a happy ending.
Both Jia and Lou in their films expressed their empathy for the inescapable life and fate for their characters and concerns for the capitalist influenced, post socialist China, where these marginalized people struggle to survive. However, neither of them shows their opinions very strongly; they use their camera, locations settings, characters and cinematic techniques as a medium for send their messages, in conspicuous ways. Their specific approaches are drastically different, yet collide in creating a highly illusional cinematic realism. As Jia himself has acknowledged, “…it simply is an attitude and an unattainable ideal of the filmmaker.”
In spite of their similar goal of achieving a high level of realism by adopting characteristics from documentary filmmaking, their cinematic styles and storytelling methods are completely different.
Jia has a strong propensity for long shots, static long takes and, straight-on camera angles. During some scenes in The World, we can't see the characters’ faces clearly nor can we hear what they are speaking. Instead, we only see them walk. The camera remains static throughout. No dramatic build-up is linked to the shot afterwards. The shot exists as if just to show us the characters’ existence on the street and their situation at that moment. At other times in the film, in terms of the plot, a shot can be “useless" because it doesn't contribute to any dramatic aspect of the film. Rather than inducing the spectator to identify with the characters by forcing him into the role of investigator through more frequent use of close-ups and editing, many scenes are just staged in long shots, thus making the spectator feel more like an observer watching from a distance.
This technique gives audiences a strong on-location feeling; they work even more effectively when a blend of authenticity is added. In Jia’s other film Xiaowu, the story ends with Xiaowu being caught and handcuffed to a steel cable on the sidewalk. While audiences still sit comfortably in their observing role and watches Xiaowu, all of a sudden, the camera swings away from him and points at passersby who are looking at Xiaowu simultaneously as we are. We, as viewers, suddenly become part of the film as well; we are in the same space with Xiaowu.
Lou’s approaches are exactly the opposite. The Suzhou River is shot with a jostling, nervous video camera, with fast showy jump cuts and layered close-ups flowing like streams of consciousness. The pace is aggressive and the color scheme is tawdry neon with pink and green, which are suggestive of Wong Kar-wai. The thriller like narrative plot, on the other hand, alludes to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rear Window. His cinematography style showing influence from Hong Kong commercial cinema and Hollywood cinema is completely different from Jia’s western art house cinema influenced mode of expression. Lou does exactly what Jia refuses to do; he adds in his own subjective melancholy and philosophy to the film using the videographer’s narration, such as the part After Meimei breaks up with the camera and the” Happy Tavern” shuts down: “Suddenly it was as if none of this had happened,” following Meimei’s disappearance, “I will be just staying here, waiting for my next love story.” Lou’s choice of inserting an overlaying voice narrator also echoes with his editing designs. In the last scene, the videographer is drinking while looking at a bridge. The shot of the bridge is superimposed on top of the first person view of a hand holding a vodka bottle. The camouflage of shots tilts back and forth to match his state of drunkenness. This type of editing induces the spectators to identify with the character; it is similar to the way how the voice over captivates the audiences and shortens the “fourth wall”.
Despite cinematography styles, their casting choices are different as well. Lou Ye casts professional actors and actresses while Lou prefers to choose non-professionals. The decision behind has to do with plots. The world has a slow paced and subtle storyline while Suzhou River has a dense, dramatic and thriller like plot. In Lou’s film, Zhou Xun’s acting is significant in bringing the double character to life. Only a good actress can capture the essence of Meimei’s uninhibited personality and Moudan’s innocence at the same time.
Jia, on the other hand, even name his characters after his actors and actresses. His stories are often derived from his own life experience and real people around him. According to Jaffee’s interview with him
, his previous films, Xiaowu, Platform and Unknown Pleasure are all shot in Shaaxi, his home town. He decides to make The World to reflect his impressions of urban life in Beijing after living there for a decade. Many of his films are concerned with performance, dancers and Karaoke, which allude to his past experience of performing with a dance troupe. It is choosing subject matters formed with his own experience and placing actors and actresses in their familiar habitat that allows him to achieve an exceptionally natural, almost authentic feel in his films.
Regardless of their different styles, nostalgia and critique of the present society are two features shared by both films. The lament for the passage of time, which is never directly depicted, is yet reflected in the ephemeral faces and stories in the endlessly flowing Suzhou River, and is measured by the distance between the Beijing World Park and Xiao Tao’s home. This subtlety in social critique is carried though in the same way; the characters in the film are not aware of their social surroundings, which has deeply influenced them and driven them to a marginalized and alienated state of being. By putting their unconsciousness against their pursuit for happiness, the directors have indeed brought out the social irony to the maximum.
- Suzhou River, 83 min, released in 7 September 2000 in Hong Kong, Mandrin, directed by Lou Ye, produced by Coproduction Office, Essential Filmproducktion
- The World, 140min, released in 18 March 2005, Mandrin, Directed by Jia Zhangke, produced by Office Kitano, Lumen films and X Stream Pictures
- An Interview with Jia Zhangke, by Valerie Jaffee, Feature Articles, Issue 32, Sense of Cinema
- The Independent cinema of Jia Zhangke: from Post socialist Realism to a Transnational Aethetics, by Jason McGrath