Three films for the new cold war – the Brooklyn Rail
Jia Zhangke’s new documentary, Swim until the sea turns blue, opened in New York on May 28. Set in Shanxi, the home province of the prolific Chinese filmmaker, viewers can expect incisive commentary on the politics of everyday life in contemporary China. For the uninitiated, Jia is arguably the most important film chronicler of China’s transition from revolutionary socialism to the free market reforms of the post-Mao era. Its signature blend of slice-of-life portraits, documentary realism, and understated surrealism offers a balm to moviegoers tired of the revengeful Cold War nationalism that grips the American press and ruling class. In anticipation of her new film, three of Jia’s narrative features are worth revisiting for their remarkable ability to transform the sites of globalization into humanistic meditations on alienation and exploitation.
Unknown pleasures (2002), Jia’s third feature film and his last to be released without the approval of state censors, tells the intricate and detailed story of Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) through a surprisingly sparse plot. Bin Bin is a rudderless youth whose meager existence belies the prosperity promised by China’s new globalized economy. In one scene, Bin Bin watches cartoons with his girlfriend, Yuan Yuan (Zhou Qing Feng), in a rented room. Her mother berated her, she tells her, for watching the World Trade Organization televised meeting instead of studying for the entrance exams. “The WTO, who cares? Bin Bin said. “Just another matter of money.” The camera moves slowly towards the television, where an animated character called the Monkey King is dancing. According to Bin Bin, the Monkey King is lucky: “No parents on his back, he is free as the wind. He doesn’t care about the WTO. Bin Bin either.
In their many layers, Jia’s films illustrate what Chinese critic Wang Hui calls “depoliticization,” a process by which the economic and political spheres of a nation gradually separate until they become completely and ” naturally ”distinct. In China, Wang Hui argues that “notions such as modernization, globalization and growth can be seen as key concepts of a depoliticized or anti-political political ideology.” Antipolitical ideology, according to Wang, is a deliberate attempt to undermine a widespread consideration of the “social and economic changes at play in commodification.” Depoliticization prohibits the contamination of the economic by the political. It erodes organized work and treats any overlap of the two spheres as a violation of natural order and common sense. With depoliticization, there is no political solution to economic problems.
With Bin Bin’s impartial rebuke of the WTO, Jia makes an important observation: Unable to articulate a policy that links his experience to China’s emergence on the international economic scene, Bin Bin instead withdraws. in an imaginary world. When he is diagnosed with hepatitis in a later scene, his life’s trajectory seems to close for good. Staring at a dusty, abandoned dining room, he announces, “There’s no fucking future. This statement captures a formless and nagging pain that permeates China’s path to commodification.
Bin Bin’s statement also characterizes the historical horizons of a world held by the gravitational pull of two great powers in a downward race. In the opening act of Ash is the purest white (2018), the most recent narrative film by Jia, an aging coal miner (Feng Xiaogang) requisitions a public address system to convey his grievances to the mine owner. “We are workers, the revolutionary class,” he announces. “What gives you the right to steal state property?” But the depoliticized political order makes tragic, if not absurd, his attempt to organize his colleagues: “Comrades of the Hong’an mine!” The future of mining is at stake! We must act before it is too late! We have to challenge these paper tigers… Let’s fight these capitalists to the end! His appeals to the Maoist language have no effect. The workers are no longer organized along the radical lines which made the revolution possible.
The Coal Miner’s Daughter, played by Zhao Tao, Jia’s immensely talented partner and close collaborator, overhears her father’s embarrassing calls on the street. She finds him drunk and leaning over a microphone. The entire unit, another coal miner told him, was made redundant after the price of coal fell. He speculates that they could be sent to another province to drill for oil. The revolutionary legacy of the workers is annulled; the state that once proclaimed militant proletarian slogans is now responding to the market.
For casual American observers, Jia’s cinema represents something of a paradox. Despite the approval of state censors, his films are anti-propaganda. They tell stories about the landless and dispossessed, migrant workers and the sex trade, party abuse and corruption, and they do so blatantly, given the state’s tight control over distribution. movies. Above all, his films show how the political rage channeled by the revolution has sublimated into senseless cruelty. None of these subjects presents the Chinese state in a particularly favorable light.
It is clear that Jia is not interested in beating the drums of nationalism or otherwise engaging in the tit-for-tat foreign policy currently in vogue. Instead, its main interest lies in the human dimension of China’s new political economy. His films capture lucid scenes of the Chinese working class struggling against the backdrop of an unprecedented financial boom. As the state pursues liberal market reforms and engages more closely with its global counterparts, particularly the United States, the stochastic vibrations triggered by the demise of American hegemony can be deeply felt in the stories of the United States. homeland of Jia.
A touch of sin (2013) presents a quartet of vignettes forming a tapestry of capitalist violence. The film’s final arc follows Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a young but unsuitable social worker in a garment factory. His story begins when he strikes up a conversation with another young worker on the factory line. Distracted, the other boy mutilates his hand in a piece of heavy machinery. When Xiao Hui learns that he will be responsible for covering his colleague’s salary, he separates and finds work at a hotel that provides sex workers to travelers from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Young escorts parade to the sound of a military hymn and wear risky Red Guard outfits to the delight of a wealthy and caricatured clientele. When Xiao Hui falls in love with one of the women in the hotel, she rejects his advances, assuring him, “There is no real love in sex work. Xiao Hui leaves, finding work in an electronics factory and living in a corporate dormitory emblazoned with the words “Oasis of Prosperity.” At the end of the vignette, Xiao Hui throws himself from the dormitory balcony.
Drawn in part from the actual suicides of Foxconn workers at company facilities, Xiao Hui’s plunge is a stark reminder of the human toll paid by workers at the end of the global supply chain. China, once the flagship of international anti-imperialism, has succeeded in converting the demand for cheap clothes, cheap materials and cheap money into a formidable power advantage on the world stage. This was done at the cost of its socialist tradition, however heavy this tradition may be. The resulting upheaval in the US-led global hierarchy reignited the Cold War and portrayed a crisis the proportions of which few can anticipate.
As the United States slides toward “domination without hegemony,” in the words of Italian theorist Giovanni Arrighi, we can expect the American empire to increasingly resist its new reality. But where does socialism go from here? Wang Hui calls for taking into account the forces of globalization that facilitate anti-political currents in finance, industry and consumption, thus pitting workers of different nationalities against each other. He argues that a collective response to the forces of misery in the 21st century should reject nationalism and instead combat globalization through a new policy of “critical internationalism”. As a document of solidarity with an often disparaged or neglected working class, Jia’s work is a place like any other to begin this difficult work. Without it, there might be no fucking future.