Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke

Xue Xuan

The book Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke is a collection of dialogues between film scholar Michael Berry and the internationally renowned Chinese filmmaker. It is divided into seven chapters, each with a theme, tracing eleven of Jia Zhangke’s films in chronological order. The content of the book mainly draws from public forums conducted during Jia Zhangke's retrospective at UCLA in 2019. Additionally, it includes several other interviews from 2002, 2019, and 2021, providing an in-depth exploration of Jia Zhangke's films and his introspections on each. The book was firstly published in Chinese by Guangxi Normal University Press in 2021 as An Accented Cinema: Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke (电影的口音:贾樟柯谈贾樟柯). The revised English version was later released in 2022 by Duke University Press.

At first glance, the title "Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke" may seem unusual, but as one delves into the book, the author’s objective quickly comes to light. Jia Zhangke elucidates his films with a rare degree of precision and clarity, which is sure to leave a deep impression on readers. The questioner is also fully prepared and well-guiding, which sheds light on many lesser-known details of the directors’ filmmaking. The public forums at UCLA were paired with film screenings, opening predominantly to film students and scholars, who, we could say, played the first batch of readers on this book. The context also significantly shapes both the narrative structure and the content.

The first chapter, "A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man," functions as Jia Zhangke's autobiography. In this session, he walks us through his upbringing in his hometown of Fenyang across the 1970s and 1980s, his educational pursuits at the Beijing Film Academy in the 1990s, and his experiences of filming with a stable group of collaborators since the late 1990s.

Chapters 2 through 5 engage in a chronological discussion of Jia Zhangke's films, including Xiao Wu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures, World, Still Life, 24 City, A Touch of Sin, Ash Is Purest White, and Mountains May Depart. Berry posed questions related to screenplay, actors, cinematography, technology, costuming, music, and more. Several themes that pervade the films are also highlighted, such as hometown, globalization, urbanization, social justice, and Jianghu. Jia Zhangke responded to each of these in detail, offering a comprehensive view of each film's creation process.

Chapter 6, "Toward an Accented Cinema," primarily records Jia Zhangke’s master class with UCLA film students. Although there are overlaps with the first chapter, this section provides a more detailed analysis. Jia Zhangke reminisced about his time as a film student at the Beijing Film Academy, placing a particular focus on his own student film, Xiao Shan Going Home. Jia Zhangke described Xiao Shan Going Home as “an immature and unpolished film”, yet the lessons he learned from it remain significant. As he put it, “no matter what, they must persevere and get through their student film and see it through to the end. Even if halfway through the shoot they are already convinced that it is garbage, they still need to finish it, edit it, and show it to people.” Jia Zhangke’s thinking on the relationship among filmmaker, film and audience particularly resonates with me. It would also serve as great encouragement for anyone aspiring to venture into filmmaking.

The book concludes with a coda, "To the Sea," utilizing Jia Zhangke's 2020 documentary film, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, as a reflective lens to explore the interplay between literature and film in contemporary China. Berry engaged in an online dialogue with Jia Zhangke to discuss his film and included this new chapter in the English version.

The dialogues in the book span nearly two decades, from 2002 to 2021, which generates some sort of intertextual relationship between chapters and coincides with Jia Zhangke’s films. For example, the concept of ‘hometown’ is initially introduced and discussed in the first chapter that serves as Jia Zhangke’s autobiography, and it resurfaces in the second chapter, “The Hometown Trilogy.” This recurrence is understandable considering the time and occasion of the conversation. However, it also brings extra difficulty to name each chapter, as evidenced by the discrepancies in the chapter titles between the Chinese and English versions. Another notable aspect is the accent of Jia Zhangke, which is featured in his films and is also reflected in his public speaking style. While Jia Zhangke spoke in Chinese during the conversations, an interpreter assisted in translating his words into English. However, this may result in a loss of accent during the process. In comparison, the Chinese version is more infused with Jia Zhangke's unique character.

Jia Zhangke is recognized under many descriptors: an independent film director, a sixth-generation filmmaker, a documentary-style director, and more. This book offers comprehensive insights into these labels through its engaging dialogues, revealing their underlying complexity. Most prominently, Jia Zhangke, as a sixth-generation filmmaker, was initially influenced by his fifth-generation predecessors, but later forged his own path. For anyone interested in Jia Zhangke's films, this book serves as an ideal resource for uncovering the narratives behind his cinematic creations.