Monday, November 04, 2019

Unknown Pleasures

Written and directed by Jia Zhangke, Unknown Pleasures is the story of three young people living in Datong during a new era of China as they escape through the world of pop culture and other new things in and out of China. The film is the third film in a thematic trilogy that relates to the changes emerging in China in the late 1990s and early 2000s as it play into three people who are part of a new era in China that is trying to repress its growing population. Starring Zhao Weiwei, Wu Qiong, and Zhao Tao. Unknown Pleasures is a compelling and evocative film from Jia Zhangke.

Set in the industrial city of Datong in the Shanxi province of China in 2001, the film follows the lives of three people who live in the city as they struggle to find work while being enamored with the world of western pop culture as a way to escape from their dull existence. It’s a film that doesn’t have much plot as it’s more about these three people dealing with their situations during a moment in time where China is about to emerge into a new era that includes the one-child per family rule. Jia Zhangke’s script doesn’t have much structure as it focuses on the three different directions that his protagonists as one of them in Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao) is a singer/dancer who works as a spokesmodel for a liquor company as she’s attracted the attention of the reckless Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) who spends much of his time riding his motorcycle and think of quick ways to make money. The third protagonist in Bin Bin (Zhao Weiwei) is struggling to find work to raise money while he lives with his mother as he tries to go to the military but faces some problems that will make his struggles even bigger.

Zhangke’s direction doesn’t bear a lot of style as it’s more emphasized on simplicity as it is shot on location in Datong as well as areas nearby. Through the usage of digital video cameras, Zhangke would allow himself to get great coverage of the locations through medium and wide shots as well as show this small town in China that is changing with a highway being built nearby. While there aren’t a lot of close-ups in the film, Zhangke does use a lot of medium shots for the character interactions and intimate moments as well as a lot of long and lingering shots that goes on for two minutes at least while there are these swift and slow camera pans that would occur or moments where the camera remains still. While it’s a simplistic style that doesn’t emphasize on action and would give the film a slow pace that not everyone is accustomed to. Yet, Zhangke does showcase a world that is changing as these three young people are dealing with the possibilities of a bleak future for this new era in China. Overall, Zhangke crafts a mesmerizing and intriguing film about three people trying to find their roles during a transitional period in China.

Cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-Wai does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its heightened yet somewhat grainy video look in its digital presentation and how it uses available light for some exterior scenes in the daytime along with scenes set at night. Editor Chow Keung does terrific work with the editing as it is largely straightforward in the way it doesn’t aim for stylish cuts to maintain the film’s straightforward tone. Production designer Jing Dong Liang does nice work with the look of some of the places the protagonists live in as well as the design of some of the stage setting for the traditional plays that are presented. The sound of Bing Han and Yang Zhang is superb for the way it captures sound on location as well as the way TV sounds to present the news of the times and how music is presented on location.

The film’s excellent cast feature some notable small roles from writer/director Jiang Zhangke as a man singing opera, Liu Xi’an as Xiao Ji’s father who finds an American dollar thinking it would help his family, Bai Ru as Bin Bin’s mother, Wang Hongwei as a friend of Xiao Ji and Bin Bin in Xiao Wu who is a small-time crook trying to make money, Zhou Qingfeng as Bin Bin’s girlfriend Yuan Yuan as a young woman who is trying to focus on her education putting a strain on her relationship with Bin Bin, and Li Zhubin as Qiao San as Qiao Qiao’s manager/boyfriend who gets her gigs to perform yet takes advantage of her while he is also a small-time criminal that rarely gets angry. Zhao Tao is amazing as Qiao Qiao as a singer/dancer working for a liquor company as their spokesmodel as she struggles with her relationship with Qiao San just as she becomes interested in Xiao Ji. Wu Qiong is fantastic as Xiao Ji as a young reckless man trying to find ways to make easy money while falling for Qiao Qiao as they share their love of American films. Finally, there’s Zhao Weiwei in a brilliant performance as Bin Bin as a young man frustrated with his lack of prospects and his own strained relations with people in his life as his attempts to join the army is halted by reasons beyond his control.

Unknown Pleasures is a marvelous film from Jia Zhangke. Featuring a great cast, incredible visuals, and a minimalist storyline to explore China in transition and how three people cope with the changes and their role or lack thereof for this new world. It’s a film that explore an air of change that is emerging with three people at the center of it as they cope with uncertainty and frustration about their own prospects. In the end, Unknown Pleasures is a remarkable film from Jia Zhangke.

Jia Zhangke Films: (Xiao Shan Going Home) – (Xiao Wu) – (Platform (2000 film)) – (In Public (2001 film)) – The World (2004 film) – (Still Life) – (Dong) – (Useless (2007 film)) – (24 City) – (Cry Me a River (2008 short film)) – (I Wish I Knew) – (A Touch of Sin) – (Mountains May Depart) – (Ash is Purest White)

© thevoid99 2019


Brittani Burnham said...

This sounds really interesting! Though Netflix's algorithm says I'll hate it, I'll likely check it out. Since it's part of a thematic trilogy I suppose I should re-search the other two as well.

thevoid99 said...

It was on TCM last month as I was able to record it on my DVR along with another film by Zhangke that I hope to see later this week. Mind you, there's not much plot and the pacing is slow as I doubt it will be on Netflix.