Best of the Decade Derby: Live-blogging Platform (2000, Jia Zhang-ke)

brought to you by Glenlivet 12 year-old single malt Scotch. When you need some liquid courage for revisiting a personal landmark movie, go Glenlivet. BACKGROUND INFO:

FIRST SCRENING: Sunday, October 8, 2000, 1:30PM - 38th New York Film Festival, Alice Tully Hall

It was a month since I moved to New York to live with Julie [my future ex-wife], and a year since we completed two years of teaching in rural China.   The New York Film Festival was a point of entry into the city's formidable film culture (it's since become my annual ritual). I showed up too late to get tickets for marquee attractions like In The Mood for Love or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - but there were plenty of tickets left for the only feature from mainland China.

In that screening my Chinese past and cinephilc present were united, and two year old memories that were already boxed up in a dark mental basement were retrieved, given pride of place, monumentalized.   The way Jia Zhangke filmed those kids stranded in the boondocks, taking delight in the changes around them before the world robbed them of their naïvete, the way he acknowledged pop culture's influence on their dreams and identities, was the same way my students in China saw themselves.   But he also scrutinized youth culture's seductive qualities and lamented its inability to contend with the demands of the adult world -- and that's what really spoke to me, how I had left China, rootless and destitute. Now I knew what Bunuel felt when he smashed the projector at a screening of Rose Hobart and accused Joseph Cornell of stealing his unfilmed visions.

Who was this Jia Zhangke?   I had never heard of him and had no critical or popular reputation as a reference point - no Ebert, Kael or Rosenbaum review upon which to rest my certainty, only lukewarm, somewhat uncomprehending praise bestowed by the New York Times. Had I ever felt so bereft and tentative in formulating my own response? Even if a critic I respected had offered a review that I agreed with, what were the chances they would speak from the same experience that was vital to what I felt this film was really about?   There had been films in the past that I felt belonged to me in some way or another, but this was the first time that I felt a film had been entrusted to me - that I had something no one else had: a duty to make the film understood.

The prospect of fulfilling this duty was grim from the onset, because the one person who I had shared China with most found Platform to be an utter bore.   Tedious, self-indulgent, pointless, Julie said; the Chinese are portrayed so inexpressively, with none of the convivial close-ups of Chinese like in To Live , her favorite Chinese movie.   How could she not see what I saw?   Did it not reflect or validate a sliver of her two years in China?   There was no time to dwell on this rift -- I had already decided that it was the greatest Chinese film I had ever seen, a feeling reinforced when I finally saw that kung-fu blockbuster breakthrough by my college hero, Ang Lee.   Such a watershed in bringing Chinese cinema to the global stage, and yet such a dandified work of neo-Confucian anti-feminist spite, with no sense of specificity to a space, place or community - it was everyone's Chinese movie, and no one's.   Platform was mine, and that meant everything.


watching the shitty Artificial Eye 4x3 non-widescreen piss-poor transfer DVD. I can't find my New Yorker DVD copy (which sucks because it's the first DVD that I was ever cited on... a long story, which I've decided out of discretion not to include in this post, despite its immense significance to my life... I'll just say two things: that at one point in my life Jia Zhang-ke played a sort of matchmaker in absentia for me.  Imagine what it's like to meet someone you're attracted to and have them present you a printout of an essay you wrote three years ago with multiple passages highlighted and bolded.  I finally got to tell this to Jia last October, and he was flattered. Second, that I saw James Gray's outstanding film TWO LOVERS today and had a lengthy discussion afterwards about how youthful, go-for-broke romanticism, practically a symptom of arrested development, gives way to the sober pragmatism of adult relationships, achieved through a kind of spiritual death of youth.  It's worth bringing this up because PLATFORM itself chronicles this process in ways that few films this decade have - ALMOST FAMOUS tries to be about this but doesn't let you feel the full impact of innocence lost - really Philip Garrel may be the only director who can compete.)

0:00:02 - I didn't realize the opening sound was a squeal of what sounds like a speaker feedback - rhymes with the final sound of the kettle whistle at the end.

0:00:25 - coarse talk about illicit lovers, the kind you would never hear in a state-sanctioned Chinese film - Jia making a statement that this movie is going to tell you what you don't hear about elsewhere.

0:01 - "Platform opens with a performance of "The Train to Shaoshan" by the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group. In terms of artistic quality, imagine a children's propaganda musical written by Dick Cheney and performed by Texas A&M's Young Republicans for the West Bumblefuck elementary school. What could only come to fruition here in a deranged SNL skit was an everyday reality under Mao's China. Making the performance even more surreal to these western eyes, the Peasant Culture Group's audience wasn't school children - it was a large gathering of adult male farmers...

As Deng Xiaoping's market reforms transformed the Chinese economy, the Peasant Culture Groups underwent privatization. But instead of finding artistic liberation, they mutated from celebrated propaganda machines into vapid pop-culture reflections: traveling sideshows of jiggling girls and monstrous cover bands. A pivotal moment for art was wasted by a lingering ideological tyranny and a brainwashed generation of artistic parodies." - Matt Parker

from an email to Matt:

The group has it's biggest audience in the beginning, presumably due to a village mandate that everyone attend typical of rural Chinese communist practices. And that the audience is somewhat aware of the kitschy inadequacy ofnthe simulated chair train, but they seem to enjoy themselves all the same, in contrast to the fistfight that erupts at one rock concert near the end. And little details like the song of the Tibetan girl (programmed as a kind of ethnic propaganda reassuring everyone that the gov is doing right by those people). Another favorite moment is when they're introduced to that song by Zhang Di ("I,Zhang Di, am often asked/ if the girls of Singapore are better than Taiwanese girls") Sure it's vapid pop like you say but it's the first encounter these kids have with a singular voice of individualism, the antithesis of the vapid groupthink and group culture you also described. I'm glad that Jia's film is more descriptive than prescriptive; as such it bears vivid witness to a crucial period of a world superpower in the making like no other film has.

0:03 - WTF! This version is missing the solo by the "Tibetan" girl. I wish Jia would release the 3 hour "directors" version of the print I first saw at NYFF - I still think it's better than the 2 1/2 hour version that hit theaters.

0:06 - Holy shit, the train sounds at the beginning - for a second feature Jia has his motifs laid out masterfully.  And the wild, collaborative teenage energy of it - this was what was missing from THE WORLD (unless you want to see that film as a depiction of a fascist state-as-theme park in which case the lack of youthful anarchy has a purpose, I suppose...)

0:09 - I've seen about 200 Chinese features in the time since I first watched PLATFORM. I've long attributed the evolution of Chinese indie cinema into the long-take slow-crawl conventions that prevail today to this film. But watching it so far I'm amazed by the goofy accessibility of this movie (at least relative to much of what has followed it) - the peasant performance, the hollering in the bus, the sight gags with the bell-bottoms, this is Judd Apatow compared to the opaqueness of its successors.

0:14 - Ah yes, the scene that made me seek out Raj Kapoor and AWAARA, another all-time favorite. I have this film to thank for that.

0:15 - Jia's rule of thumb with this film seems to be "have more than one thing going on in a scene - preferrably one expository thing and one piece of incidental cultural context, and lay it on like dressing on salad" - case in point, Zhao Tao's character Yin Ruijuan comes out to meet her father who scolds her for hanging out with the wrong crowd - then he interrupts himself to tell a group of delinquent kids to turn and face the wall - we learn that he's a police officer and we get to see how authority figures treat juveniles.

0:17 - I fucking love this city wall. City walls have existed in China for centuries, occasionally rebuilt, to defend against invading Mongols and such. Who would have thought it'd be the preferred site for romantic trysts and heart-to-hearts. Interesting how you can hear other people talking from some undefined distance, suggesting that privacy is never an absolute state.

0:22 - "Fengliu, fengliu, shenme shi fengliu?' I wish they had this poem at karaoke bars. Expositionally significant because the concept of romance was publicly taboo for decades - and it's to Jia's credit that he doesn't make a big deal out of that (taking a cue from late 80s Hou). Maybe it's to Western audience's loss, but it bolsters the integrity of the film.

0:30 - I remember discussing Platform with novelist-filmmaker Zhu Wen (Seafood, South of the Clouds), who criticized the film for trying to be too epic, for trying to make a grand definitive statement about an entire generation. May have amounted to professional jealousy. Looking at this film, I have no complaints with Jia trying to say as much as he could about his generation's experiences of life and its slow evolution over the course of a decade. Our sense of where this country and its people has come from is the richer for it.  What's especially great about it is how he's able to lay in a lot of these details incidentally, as if they just happen to pass by the screen. For sharp contrast, see how Scorsese handles trying to convey historical information in GANGS OF NEW YORK.

0:43- ah yes the wall scene. The use of space here really struck me when I first watched it. I'm not sure if I've seen Jia use this technique since. To be honest I'm not sure if Jia has exhibited this degree of playfulness since his first two features, and it goes without saying that I wish he would...

0:47 - Bad boy pop officially lands in central China. To this day I still can't find this song by Zhang Di about whether Taiwan girls are better than Singapore girls, or the "Gen-Gen-Genghis Khan" song. But this sequence sends a chill through my spine, because it's depicting the dissemination of culture in a way that feels historically authentic while capturing the spirit of exhilaration, like what it was like for me to hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time, or the moment I finally got Guns 'N' Roses (October 1990 Future Business Leaders of America conference in Fresno, watching a roomful of suburban white boys slamdancing to "It's So Easy").  This is not an easy thing to pull off, as wanna-be time capsule movies like THE WACKNESS will testify.

0:54 - more playing with the space of the walls - exiting the stage, a quasi-homage to Lim Giong jumping out of the frame in GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE.

1:03 - to my knowledge this is the first depiction of abortion in any movie from China, the country where more abortions take place than anywhere in the world. Followed by subversive use of "official" radio broadcast, one of Jia's stylistic hallmarks, to be copied by many Chinese filmmakers (though it was Hou Hsiao Hsien's CITY OF SADNESS that first made prominent use of this device in a Chinese cinematic idiom)

1:17 - we're well into the Fengyang youth group's first tour of the countryside, a trip that takes on multiple meanings - an examination of emerging class differences between city and country Chinese, visible even in the nascent stages of post-Mao Open Door Era China; an '80s pop version of the Cultural Revolution compulsory "sent down" assignments that urban youths had to endure; the limited possibilities to live as free and easy artists/know-it-all hipsters in a Communist society.

1:25 - there's a scene from the original cut that's missing from this mining sequence - a really dark and sinister moment when the troupe manager tries to collect from the drunk mine bosses and the bosses retort by threatening to have the miners rape the women of the troupe. I think I'd have to say that the film may be better without it - we'll eventually learn of the troupe's hardships in less melodramatic ways.

Another thing that's missing - a road interlude where they're listening to a Chinese adaptation of Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You" from the movie STREETS OF FIRE, translated in Chinese as "I Miss My Mom." (I may be one of less than a dozen people in the world who saw that scene and got the reference...)

1:30 - ah yes, the title song sequence. Brings back a memory of my first week in China as an English teacher and going to a tacky nightclub where this 30-something singer performed a one man musical revue with the help of several skimpily clad model-dancers. One of his numbers was "Platform" and I remember him singing this song with an eerie guttural rage ("My heart waits, waits, ENDLESSLY WAITING..."). Watching PLATFORM the first time I thought of this guy and the possibility that he could have been one of these kids, only grown up and still hacking away at his dream of bringing music and a little star power to the world. I wonder where he might be today...

1:42 - Zhong Ping disappears. I wish I had the guts to ask Jia or someone whatever happened to this actress - not only does her character disappear from the film, but the actress disappeared from movies. I wonder if the two disappearances were connected.

1:45 - For the record, this drunken bricklaying scene wasn't in the original cut.

1:46 - I remember in the course of writing the Senses of Cinema essay feeling apprehensive that PLATFORM owed possibly too much to Theo Angelopoulos' THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS to be considered a truly groundbreaking work. But now I see how this film has its own idiom, achieved more through the violence of history separated by cuts from scene to scene than lyrical long take camerawork.

1:47 -

Is it true that I am leaving you? Is it true no more tears will fall Is it true I have a one-way ticket? Leaving on a road with no end? Is it true I am leaving you? Is it true no more tears will fall? Is it true, as I said before That lovers must be lonely?

Hands down the most poignant scene in the film. A young lady at her office on night duty, hearing a song and letting herself be carried into a dance she used to perform, surrounded by invisible memories of her old gang of comrades, her ex-boyfriend. The past resurrected, reanimated and put to burial all at once.

1:52 - Loveable Wang Hong-wei having his Billy Idol moment - I'm sure Billy Idol has had fruit and shoes thrown at him at some point. Things obviously not going well for the All Star Rock-and-Breakdance Electronic Band.

1:54 - A scene of startling, documentary-like directness, twin sisters talking about why they've joined the band, which feels as much 1999 - or 2009 - as 1980s. Girls leave their homes for more or less the same reasons then as now.

2:06 - Such a sad scene - the two girls dancing on a truck to "Girl Under a Streetlamp" along the roadside while the traffic drowns and crowds out their performance. Defiance and despair. They've adopted a cheesy 80s disco song as their chosen form of artistic expression, and they're not even performing it terribly well, but the courage, grit and pathos of the scene is undeniable.

2:21 - This subplot about Cui Mingliang's parents and his relationship with his absent father may feel a bit extraneous, but again, it's one of those things that hits a nerve with me, given my own family history. It just seems to take a long time just to establish that the father has remarried, without offering additional information - narrative, historical, etc. It might have had more of a place in the longer cut. Speaking of which, from my essay for Senses of Cinema:

For what it's worth, here I would like to describe the coda to the original version of the film, which has since been excised from the “distributor's cut”. It begins with a long shot of a silhouetted figure standing in the midst of a vast and desolate landscape, firing a rifle towards the sun lingering on the horizon (whether it is rising or setting is not made clear, and it adds to the alluring mystery of the image). The camera pans away from the armed figure until it reveals the entire ensemble of the movie, dressed in their performance costumes, standing together and facing the sun, in such a way that resembles the idealized human profiles depicted on Chinese currency. These people, whose collective hopes have been dashed over the course of the film, are given one final chance to re-occupy a common space, bravely facing the sun that symbolizes the setting of an old age, or the dawning of a new, or both. This is one of the most beautifully lyrical and humanistic images I've witnessed in the recent history of cinema, and for some reason it's not even in the final cut.

Guess there's still work to be done...