Jia Zhangke is undoubtedly one of the giants of Chinese cinema. His films stand among the most important works of recent decades, and his ability to capture both universal and specific snapshots of China have easily led him to establish himself as one of the most influential and revered directors in the nation. That said, in reviewing Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang, there’s a perpetual temptation to talk about Jia’s films, him as a director more broadly and the vast discourse that surrounds his output – but that doesn’t do Walter Salles’ documentary justice as a work that stands on its own as a complex and faithful character study.
Salles’ documentary is carefully interwoven with excerpts of Jia’s cinema. The film’s ability to move between present day narrations by the director and legendary scenes from his movies quickly becomes one of its biggest assets as it articulates an intricately detailed and wholesome portrayal of the director. Some documentaries have deceased subjects, some are lucky enough to have them alive – some, however, are even luckier. A Guy From Fenyang falls into the latter category, with the documentary less a reflection on the director and more of a narrative piercing into the context that created him and informed his works. The statement, “Even though I’ve lived in Shanxi for 23 years, I didn’t know my region,” marks the film’s departure from simply examining Jia the filmmaker. From here, Salles’ documentary is more about the complex relationship between Jia and the land, people and interactions that inform him as a director. This is as physical as it is social as it is even economical as evinced in a scene where Jia discusses the boom in China and how it created a more globalised landscape strewn with international franchises like McDonalds.
Sometimes the film demonstrates the abject popularity of Jia within China more overtly – most palpably in a scene where the director is introduced to a lecture theatre at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, with the simple statement: “You all know him, he’s a celebrity.” As he expounds: “You might call the characters in my film ‘non holders of power’,” reflecting that his stories focus on figures “subject to our era” – in scenes like this, Jia establishes himself as a people’s filmmaker. He’s in tune with his audience in this scene, identifying himself as part of this aforementioned group being subject to the era. In this scene Salles creates a dichotomy in the way in which we approach Jia Zhangke. He establishes a division: Jia the artist and Jia the person. The former is seen in every excerpt from the director’s films shown throughout the documentary, while the essence of the latter navigates the same space while putting itself on display in the more interview-focused sections in the film.
The scenes from his film that Salles selects for inclusion never come off as random choices – the dance scene from Platform is carefully interwoven with Zhao Tao – Jia’s wife – reflecting on her time working with Jia while walking through the scene it was originally filmed, and sure, this can come off as novelty from a disconnected perspective, but placed within the context of the film, it gives a certain authenticity and completeness to the narration throughout. Footage of figures walking through the street as various vehicles sound off a symphony of horns, shouting, and the screeches of breaks switches to a shot of Jia inside a building in the same region, with much similar sounds (albeit muted) coming in through the window. These parallels and shifts are at the heart of the film as Salles paints a cinematic thesis that Jia is perpetually infected and infused with the influences of his detailed and vast surroundings. At the top of the stairs are his sisters. These reflections are palpable and humanising towards Jia as he’s framed in the nostalgic glow of reflections such as: “It’s sad those trees are gone,” “We used well water,” “He was so little… He wouldn’t let his father go.” These remarks universalise Jia’s experience as one of millions in rural China. This goes hand in hand with the already established universal appeal of the humble and relatable characters that exist within the director’s works.
As Jia moves through his old neighbourhoods the sense of community is remarkable. In one particular scene, an older woman – asking about Jia’s mother and whether or not he’s had children – pauses and reflects, “My god… I saw you grow up.” These scenes are simple, but they’re equally important. The brief moments of reflection are the most lasting throughout the film. Together, they paint an image of Jia Zhangke as both one of China’s most impressive talents, but also as a figure inextricably linked to his hometown: Fenyang. The documentary is very slow-moving at times, but this doesn’t detract from it. It’s meditative rather than fast-paced entertainment, and it’s hard to imagine an adequate reflection on Jia’s life taking any other form.
Above all, Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang is a film for long-time Jia Zhangke fans. This isn’t a necessity by any measure, as the film makes sense on its own: an insightful, detailed and broad look at the interrelation between an artist and the parts of life in rural China that shaped his vision. Perhaps it’s better to say that this film is far more rewarding for these aforementioned fans of Jia’s cinema. The way in which Salles ties scene after scene to the places that influenced them, the way Zhangke’s mentality bleeds onto the screen with a rush of knowledge and passion, or even the way his own relationship to the films becomes clearer – this is a film that cuts a new layer of depth beneath Zhangke’s movies in a markedly wholesome manner. Jia begins the film with the simple statement, “I have such appreciation for the camera for without it, I could not capture the details of life and I would be left with all I feel inside.” Salles weaves every interaction, reflection, interview, excerpt and comment around this statement and the film is all the better as a result. Jia is a director who deserves to be closely examined and in Salles’ film, we’re given the perfect opportunity to do so.