Thursday, April 24, 2014


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Useless - dir. Jia Zhangke. 2007. Lincoln Center.

A documentary clothing and China. Divided into two ha(l)ves: the haves and the have-nots.

I find the better a film is, the less I have to say about it. Speech seems superfluous.

Jia Zhangke is by reputation one of the greatest filmmakers working today. He is of the so-called Sixth Generation of Beijing Film Academy graduates. (Mainland Chinese film history tends to be divided up by decade-long blocks of graduates from this, the main film school.) He makes slow-paced, moody, nearly non-narrative films with gorgeous, patient tracking shots about youth, alienation, and China Today. Equally skilled at documentary and narrative, which he usually intermixes in any case. He began as a hardscrabble independent filmmaker and now makes foreign-funded prestige art films, alternating between pictures that can and can't be distributed in the Mainland's state-censored system. He's not a total fucking sell-out yet, but there is some worry that he's on his way there. Some of his films I have found the most moving and indispensable works of art of our time (Still Life, which was distributed in the Mainland, is my favorite). Sometimes I find his observationalism a little too on-the-surface. Useless is somewhere in between.

The first half consists of footage of Chinese garment-making factories and luxury fashion stores interspersed with an interview with a young Chinese fashion designer, Ma Ke, whose brand, "Useless," gives the film its title. Jia could film anything and make it beautiful. He makes the rough seem smooth; the crude, elegant; the hot, cool; the raw, finished. He looks upon the upheavals of History with the placidity of Time. He films the garment factories with love, taking in the faces and hands of the workers, and he films the luxury stores with mild derision, focusing on objects rather than people. Jia's ability to make something out of nothing is the beginning of the implicit parallel between himself and Ma Ke.

Ma Ke says that China makes most of the world's clothes but doesn't make any Chinese clothes, in the sense that there are no Chinese clothing designers of note. Ma Ke wants to make her mark not just for herself but also, to an extent, for China--a wounded nationalist sentiment that, even where it seems in certain respects justified, is suspiciously consistent with the ideology of state power. She says that mass produced items have no soul, no story to tell, which is why all her products are hand-made on old-fashioned looms. She buries some of her clothing in dirt to age it--never has "authenticity" seemed more conceptual. She regards her work as a kind of "protest," although really she is just a petite bourgeois capitalist in a necessarily limited, boutique market. The first half of the film concludes with the presentation of her more artsy work at Paris Fashion week, where models cover their skin in paint that looks like mud and wear her very medieval-looking, burlap-like clothes.

The film transitions into its second half in what appears to be a staged sequence in which Ma Ke drives out to the country. She says something about needing to get inspiration from the people there. We see her car drive over a wooden bridge and pass a leather-faced old coal miner. Rather than continue to follow Ma Ke, the camera stays with the coal miner, who watches Ma Ke drive away and then walks off in the distance towards what seems to be a mining settlement. The rest of the film is about that mining settlement and the shitkickers who live there, centering around the tailor's shop.

My readings and viewings--though not really my personal experience--have informed me of the existence of many different types of oppositional rhetoric in China. Chin Kwan Lee's Against the Law acquainted me with the tendencies among older people to invoke Mao and the broken promises of traditional state communism, and among younger people to use the rhetoric of human rights and rule of law. The writings of Wang Hui generally and Verso's roundtable of the Chinese New Left, One China, Many Paths, did much to inform me of the broad spectrum of ideological positions in China which, compared to the CCP line, may count as dissent: voices calling for liberal democracy and social democracy on the left, and voices calling for neconservativism and laissez-faire economics on the right. The daily news tells me that there is separatism inspired by ethnic and religious sentiment among the Uigars and the Tibetans, and the half-sincere, half-contrived Falun Gong phenomenon.

It is thanks to the remarkable MoMA series Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions and the film scholarship of people like Chris Berry that I can place Jia in a milieu of socially concerned artists--including Wang Bing, Liu Jian, Zhao Liang, Wu Wenguang and his acolytes--whose work reflects not coherent ideological positions but the disaffected individualism of people unable or unwilling to compete in the neo-Darwinian free-for-all of contemporary China. Jia and his generation focus on the experiences and problems of individuals, or of pseudo-coherent, internally fragmented, irreparably broken, marginalized, doomed, hopeless, soon-to-be-erased communities of individuals. (Re: communities: I’m thinking of Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks, Zhao’s Petition, Jiang Yue's The Other Bank, Xu Ruotong & JP Sniadecki’s Yumen). The work is more personal than political, with an awareness, but not necessarily an insistence, that the personal is political. Sometimes this individualism manifests in punk-ish expressionism, as in the earlier work of Ai Weiwei and his scene. In the case of film, this individualism has more often manifested itself in a kind of empiricism. In lieu of analysis, observation. In lieu of ideology, no comment.

I sometimes find myself dissatisfied with this approach and have to work through the inevitability of my dissatisfaction and in order to get beyond it. As a Western Leftist, or something like one, I am inclined to voice my dissent using the rhetoric of Marxism and communism. My imaginary counterparts in China have been situated in and by history such that the very same rhetoric that appeals to me is unappealing, unpalatable, or ineffective for them. The individualism and empiricism of the kind of cinema in question, it’s lack of overt ideological posturing, is on the one hand a survival strategy, not just for evading the wrath of the CCP, but possibly even for just existing in today’s China, for trying to carve out a pit of personal autonomy in the absence of any larger, credible, at hand meta-narrative of resistance. On the other hand, individuals/empiricism also has a concrete tactical usefulness. It allows some degree of social criticism to be slipped in under the guise of “seeking truth from facts,” a slogan that has shaped CCP rhetoric and policy in the post-Deng era. Which is cool.

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