It is opportune that I saw Mr Tree in the same week that I taught about Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke in two separate classes.
For, Jia acts as producer of Mr Tree, and Han Jie’s film, while by no means a Jia Zhangke ‘rip-off,’ definitely contains themes that are also of close concern to Jia, especially the effects of modernisation on rural life.
I shall deal more with Mr Tree below. But I’d like to reflect a little bit on teaching Jia Zhangke, not so that I can write about Jia specifically, but so that I can deal with the reception of Chinese cinema – and art house cinema more generally – in the West, and also to illustrate to those who might be interested what studying cinema at university can involve.
This week I used two different Jia films for two different modules that I am teaching this term. The first film is Shijie/The World (China/Japan/France, 2004) for a module that I am teaching on Digital Cinema. The reason behind this choice was to explore the ways in which digital cameras have reinvigorated the possibility for filmmakers to create ambitious projects on relatively low budgets, and which offer up an alternative view of the world to that which seems increasingly to be replicated not just in mainstream Hollywood cinema, but across all mainstreams worldwide. In other words, The World serves as a means to explore how/whether digital technology enables independent and artistic world cinema.
And the second film is Jia’s first feature, Xiao Wu/Pickpocket (Hong Kong/China, 1998) for a module that I am teaching called Guerrilla Filmmaking. The aim of this module is, in the spirit of De fem benspænd/The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, Denmark/Switzerland/Belgium/France, 2003), to set my students regular and short film projects on certain topics and involving certain formal constraints. As well as making the films, the students are invited to reflect critically on their projects – explaining what they have learnt, from the practical to the political to the philosophical. The students are also invited to talk about how they get their films seen once they are in existence.
The reason for showing Xiao Wu was/is not because this is a film made on a micro-budget, as per other films that I show my students as part of the module, including my colleague’s activist film, Chronicle of Protest (Michael Chanan, UK, 2011), as well as my own two features, En Attendant Godard (UK, 2009) and Afterimages (UK, 2010).
The reason for choosing the film is because Xiao Wu was made without a permit. Jia just went into the streets and filmed – and this is noticeable from the variable sound quality, from the inconsistent lighting, and especially from the way in which ‘extras’ – in fact just people in the street – often turn and look directly at the camera, while the actors – all non-professionals – carry on regardless. In other words, Xiao Wu serves as a means to explore the possibility of simply going out into the street and filming, guerrilla-style.
A phrase that seems to get repeated a lot at the moment is ‘go big or go home.’ In some senses, my Guerrilla Filmmaking module is precisely not about going big – but about working out how to use the means at one’s disposal to say what one wants to say. Not to make a film for the purpose solely of trying to please others. But about using film as an expressive (and supremely malleable) medium to convey one’s own thoughts and ideas. The module is intended to encourage students precisely to think and to have ideas, then, and to endeavour to put these into audiovisual form.
Anyway, with regard to my classes, I introduced Jia, the director of both films, as belonging to the so-called sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers – the previous five generations taking Chinese cinema from its early origins to the 1930s (first), through to China’s 1940s cinematic heyday (second), Chinese cinema under Communism (third), the (lack of) cinema of the Cultural Revolution (fourth), and the rise of the fifth generation in the 1980s and 1990s, the fifth generation including filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.
Obviously, the latter two are still making films, as anyone who has seen Ying xiong/Hero (Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China, 2002), Shi mian mai fu/House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, China/Hong Kong, 2004) and Wu ji/The Promise (Chen Kaige, China/USA/South Korea, 2005) will know.
Now, while Chen and Zhang have both moved into blockbuster filmmaking, as the above examples demonstrate, they still plough the same thematic fields that they explored in their early, career-making films. That is, they make historical films, often featuring strong heroines, exploring China’s past to reflect – often critically – on the present, in particular the myth of nation-building and unification (even if their films can be read in a reactionary way, as Hero perhaps most clearly exemplifies in its decision to have a rebellious asssassin not kill a tyrannical leader because the latter’s work in unifying China, even if achieved by the sword, is finally understood by the assassin to be a ‘good thing’).
By contrast, the sixth generation, with Jia as one of its figureheads, concentrates more upon the contemporary, taking in issues of forced migration within China – particularly for the purposes of modernisation, urbanisation, and the alienating side-effects of globalisation.
Many sixth generation films were made without permits – such as Xiao Wu (The World, by contrast, was Jia’s first film to be made with a permit; more on the film can be read here). As such, they are often defined as ‘underground’ films, although this title can be misleading in that ‘underground’ can function as much as a brand as it does a qualification for unauthorised – and therefore supposedly ‘authentic’ – portraits of the nation’s contemporaneity.
Now, Jia’s films are ‘slow’ – consisting of ponderous long takes in which minimal action takes place; the emphasis often seems to be less on characters and more on the spaces and places in which the ‘action’ (or lack thereof) takes place.
For this reason it perhaps came as no surprise that my students – all bar one – said of The World that it is ‘boring’ – and, more controversially, that the filmmaker has a ‘duty’ (I can’t recall if this was the exact term used) to make ‘interesting’ and ‘entertaining’ films.
This prompted a diatribe from their lecturer (me) about the attention economy in which we live, and the foundations of which are built upon computers (i.e. digital technology) in their various guises (including iPhones, iPods, iPads, and the like – cheers, Steve Jobs). That is, that boredom is intolerable in the contemporary age, and that everything must happen at the accelerated pace of the entertainment industries, with what David Bordwell has defined as ‘intensified continuity‘ and which Steven Shaviro more recently has called a ‘post-continuity‘ culture at its core.
In contrast to this, there are – on a general level – filmmakers who feel the need to represent the fact that for all of the attention(-deficient) economy that bombards the bourgeoisie, and for all of the ease of movement that the global rich enjoy – both actual and virtual, there are many people who are left behind. Whose lives are slow. Who cannot and/or who do not want, perhaps, to lead their life at the speed of light.
Do these kinds of lives, I put to my students, not merit depiction? Who decides what is ‘cinematic’ and what is not? And would making an ‘exciting’ (i.e. ‘fast’) film about lives that many people might deem ‘unexciting’ (and ‘slow’) not be an inappropriate if one were trying to remain faithful to one’s subject matter and/or one’s own ideas thereupon?
Without wishing to overlook the specifically Chinese provenance of Jia’s films, or indeed the very constructed nature of his fictions (we cannot read them as entirely accurate representations of Chinese reality, even if he uses devices that typically we associate with that ethos), my argument in class also proposed that there is no consensus on what constitutes ‘entertaining’ with regard to film – and that perhaps there should not be such a consensus, otherwise all films would look and feel the same.
Now, I am not sure how convincing my diatribe was. One of my students – the most vocal critic of The World (Xiao Wu was ‘better’ because it had something of a plot – and, perhaps crucially, is 50 minutes shorter) – has blogged in spite of my defence of Jia that he (and I paraphrase) should not make this kind of film, since alienating audiences (there is no specification of what kind of audience is being considered here, the assumption being that all audiences are the same) is one of the worst sins of filmmaking.
I would link to the student’s blog – because I do not want to deprive them of their input in the dialogue I am creating. Alas, the blog is on a site closed to all outside of my university (and even then you need to be registered on the software, Mahara, that hosts it). So, apologies for those who wish to but cannot read the blog – perhaps especially to those who would agree with the student’s outlook on filmmaking in general and this film in particular.
Now, I want to try to avoid coming across as high-minded and condescending to my student(s) – for they are entitled to their thoughts, even if I also find it mildly frustrating to make a case for art cinema that is duly and adamantly cast aside for the sake of imposing a pre-existing set of criteria regarding what constitutes ‘good’ cinema (i.e. I probably am both high-minded and condescending at the last).
I also am wary about ‘picking on’ one or any of my students, not least because this one is certainly engaged and a keen participant in my classes. That is, I greatly appreciate what this person contributes to my classes, even if I do not agree with them, and even if I feel the need to encourage in them a more critical perspective.
(Interestingly, when it was established prior to showing it that Xiao Wu is, in the words of another student, ‘what we would call a “festival film,”‘ this also brought about a greater level of (perceived) engagement – as if one cannot watch films ‘properly’ without being given the correct prompt/lens through which to view them.)
This blogospheric excursion into teaching the cinema of Jia Zhangke may have exposed my limitations as a teacher, in that I failed to convince my students about the validity of The World, and to a lesser extent that of Xiao Wu, the ‘boringness’ of which – apparently – outweighed any interest in what Jia was trying to do; i.e. I could not get my students to consider what The World is, since they preferred instead to talk about what the film is not.
Furthermore, this excursion into teaching Jia Zhangke might also have exposed the limitations of top-down teaching as a whole; others involved in education, at any level, may share my sadness when I see value judgements made repeatedly in spite of insistent attempts to foster not simple judgement but critical engagement.
However, I mention all this as a preface to discussing Mr Tree, which, as mentioned, was produced by Jia and which shares with his films a similar set of concerns, because the issue of pace and boredom lies at the heart of what in different ways I have elsewhere defined as the war of/for our cinema screens and the political, perhaps even ethical, dilemmas facing filmmakers when making films about certain subjects.
Han Jie’s film is, like Jia’s films more generally, contemplative. Shu (whose name means ‘tree’ and who is played by Baoqiang Wang) is a drifter-type, who is a little bit crazy, a little bit weird.
He has a job as a car mechanic that he soon loses after inflicting upon himself an accident: he uses a blowtorch without the face mask and temporarily blinds himself, prompting his boss to let him go. He falls in love with a local deaf mute, Xiaomei (Zhuo Tan), and endeavours to woo her without much success – at least initially.
The local kids kind of ridicule Shu, although he seems well connected, hanging out with the local businessmen (who are trying to oust his mother from their family home for the sake of developing the land for business purposes; there is a coal mine in the area). He drinks, has the odd fight, wanders around his town, goes to the big city in Jilin, the northern province where he lives, and spends a bit of team cleaning up the school that a friend from his hometown runs, and he finally gets married to Xiaomei.
Except that on his wedding day, Shu is miserable. This is mainly because he has begun to see the ghost of his dead brother – a brother who apparently was hanged by his father from the tree in which Shu sometimes hides – and who is thoroughly ‘modern’ in his corduroys, hipster haircut, cool girlfriend and jacket.
Xiaomei makes love to him, but then leaves Shu, because he does not care for her. Shu then predicts accurately that the local mining industry – which has also already claimed the life of one his other local friends – will cause the water in the area to stop flowing.
Something of a prophet, it would seem, Shu then seemingly becomes rich by advising the mining company how correctly to bring to an end the malpractice that thus far has characterised it.
However, Shu’s ostensible success is revealed latterly as a fantasy, as is his reunion with a pregnant Xiaomei. In other words, Shu becomes mad, not least because his life is marked by the death of his brother and his friend. His descent into incoherence, however, seems to reflect the insistent modernisation that the village/town is undergoing through the mining company and other forces: people are moved out of their homes, and the ‘traditional’ ways seem to be disappearing as people are offered TVs and other mod cons to accept the questionable business plans for the area.
Even though Shu seemingly goes mad, he is still a character that seems to be able to see. As mentioned, he is temporarily blinded at the start of the film, but there is a strong emphasis on vision and visuality in the film, more often than not associated with Shu. He may be a living anachronism, incapable or unwilling to go along with the times, while his former friends get increasingly rich, but perhaps that is because he realises more than anyone else the confusion and chaos that is descending upon Jilin and the industrialisation of one of China’s most beautiful provinces (it is one of the ‘four major natural wonders of China’ – along with the Three Gorges Valley, the Rimmed Trees that also are in Jilin, and the Stone Forest of Yunnan).
Indeed, Shu seems to have these changes inscribed physically on his body: he moves in a twisted and awkward fashion (a great performance from Baoqiang), and often bears cuts, bruises and scars.
Furthermore, not only through his name, but also physically do we see Shu in connected with nature: as mentioned, he hides up a tree, but he also walks and runs most places – and he certainly does not have easy access to the good cars that his local friends seem to have. Even Shu’s brother drives a taxi, suggesting that he is moving along with the times, rather than being left behind as Shu is.
As such, Mr Tree is an interesting film that implicitly critiques what can be interpreted as the modernisation of China, which in turn leads to the disappearance of traditional ways of life – embodied here by Shu.
The film’s eventual descent into fantasy makes of Mr Tree a film that is only questionably realistic (although this critique – bizarrely – never seems to be made against, say, Miracolo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1951), a core film of the influential Italian neorealist movement, from which both this and Jia’s films seem to take inspiration, and which itself has an entire fantasy ending featuring, as implied by the title, a miracle made only more bitter by the fact that it is fantastic and impossible).
Nonetheless, as per much sixth generation filmmaking (if the term still applies – how long can a generation last before becoming a new one?), the film is a politicised glimpse into contemporary Chinese life.
It is only fitting that the film adopts the ‘slow’ pace that it does, filming predominantly in long shot to ground Shu and the other characters in the space/place that they inhabit rather than to have us view the film as simply a character portrait.
Again, this is not to overlook the complex roots of the film in Chinese culture – my reading might seem to ground the film uniquely in a genealogy of films and style of filmmaking – but it is to suggest that aesthetic strategies (how one shapes the look, feel, pace, and intensity of a film) are strongly tied to the political.
Hero this film neither is nor could be, interesting though Zhang’s most accessible work is in and of itself. For my part, then, I can only continue to reiterate, perhaps narcissistically (if I can never convince anyone who thinks otherwise), that judging films according to criteria of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (with good being fast and exciting, bad being slow and ‘boring’) is pointless. It is better, rather, for us to think about what the film seems to be saying.
Not just to watch the film as entertainment, but to read, or to think about the film – perhaps even to find about the cinematic, industrial, and cultural contexts – among others – in which the film was made.
This is what I try to do as a lecturer in film. Sometimes I feel very strongly about it; the attention economy has us in its grips, and we will overlook many important – nay, vital – things if we do not pay enough respect to that which surrounds us. Some films try to do this by being deliberately slow. This is not bad; it is a strategy for trying to induce thought and thoughtfulness.
While I personally think that there are ‘problems’ with this ‘strategy’ (it is too teleological, it perhaps stratifies film into entertainment vs art house modes that rarely meet, and whose audiences rarely meet, and I am certain that one can think critically about Hollywood or any other mainstream style of cinema), it remains an important one.
If my choice of films and my teaching style run the risk of boring my students, a ‘problem’ that I might be called into account for when I have to proactively to address the feedback that my students eventually will give me for my teaching methods and choices, then this is just an issue that I/they will have to face together.
While I like fast films, too, I want to emphasise here how I am in praise of slow films – and why. I hope that this blog might help to convince someone – anyone – that slow films (all films?!) are important and not to be overlooked…