Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s latest documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue brings to a conclusion his trilogy about the arts in China. Photo: AFP
Sitting quietly in Berlin’s Hyatt Hotel for this interview, Jia Zhangke is a long way from home – a subject that must be on his mind right now.
One of the pre-eminent figures in China’s so-called “sixth generation” of filmmakers, famed for such films as A Touch of Sin, the Venice-winning Still Life and Ash Is Purest White , he is here at the Berlinale to present Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.
Jia’s first documentary since 2011’s I Wish I Knew, this non-fiction odyssey also takes him back to his native Fenyang in Shanxi Province, the setting for a number of his films including Platform and Mountains May Depart .
After his studies of painter Liu Xiaodong (in 2006’s Dong) and fashion designer Ma Ke (2007’s Useless), this is the conclusion of Jia’s loosely defined trilogy about the arts in China.
Chinese author Jia Pingwa in a still from Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.
Here, his focus is the written word, as three Chinese writers of note – Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong – gather to speak at a literature festival in Shanxi Province. A fourth, the late Ma Feng, is also a significant presence in a film that relies heavily on personal testimony.
With these writers famed for depicting rural characters and settings, their thoughts and feelings about their lives and work was something Jia felt compelled to capture. “The rural experience is something I think is missing in the main narrative, main discourse, of the society now in China,” he tells the Post, “because we have experienced traumatic urbanisation, and a lot of younger generations have no idea what it was like before in rural villages.”
As the film emerges as a subtle portrait of Chinese history since 1949, it becomes clear why Jia chose authors as his principal subjects. “Writers are people that tend to be very perceptive and that’s why they tend to be the messengers of what’s going on in society in real time. Also, these are very famous, brave writers, who continue to this day to push the boundaries of a lot of social issues and social taboos. They will write about things that people dare not talk about and that’s the main motif of their work.”
Certainly, that is the case for Jia Pingwa, one of China’s most famous writers, who saw his infamous 1993 novel Ruined City, with its graphic sexual content, banned for 17 years. But director Jia wasn’t looking to stir up controversy with his film. “More importantly for me, these are great storytellers … not only can they use written words to tell a story, but if they’re on camera, they can pass down that type of oral history in a very, very convincing and authentic manner.”
Liang Hong was one of the Chinese authors Jia spoke to in his documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.
Knowing that writers were likely to be as “open, honest and intimate as possible” with their memories, Jia cites by way of comparison his 2008 film 24 City, which dealt with the recollections of three generations of people in Chengdu, as a state-owned factory gave way to a modern apartment complex.
“I used factory workers to recount the trauma and the challenges they experienced at the time.” People are willing to share, he adds. “You just need to know where to find them.”
With this sense of Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue being an oral history, it’s why Jia calls the film “my gift” to younger people in the way that they will be able to draw from the recollections of his interviewees. Certainly, it is a potent exploration of life during the Cultural Revolution. Yu, the author famed for his 1993 novel To Live, recalls the deep frustration of finding censored books, missing their beginnings and ends. “I was haunted by those missing endings,” he says in the film.
Jia, who at 49 is a decade younger than Yu, was raised at the tail-end of the Cultural Revolution. “I do remember that I have similar experience reading comic books. Sometimes it was just the middle part, without the beginning or the end.” Growing up, his older siblings also used to tell him stories about receiving books written by hand, and secretly passed them around “because they cannot have original copies of the novels”.
(From left) screenwriter Wan Jiahuan, director and screenwriter Jia, and executive producer Zhu Weijie of Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Xinhua
For Jia, a return to the documentary form after a decade in fiction – during which time his reputation in world cinema has grown hugely – was a particular joy. “For fictional films, you tend to have a very strict script that you know how the story is going to go,” he says.
“There may be some changes but it’s already there. With documentary films, you have new discoveries in the filmmaking process. A lot of things just happen by chance. They’re not pre-planned. It’s very spontaneous. It’s continuously and constantly evolving.”
Divided into 18 short chapters, the structure of Jia’s documentary feels initially rather loose, but it gradually reveals itself as chronological. Beginning with Ma, as recalled by his daughter, “You have different generations of writers recounting a history from different eras.” The film takes us, via Jia Pingwa and Yu, to Liang, the youngest of the quartet (she was born in 1973) who has made her name in literary criticism, short stories and fiction.
A scene from Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue. The documentary focuses on rural characters and settings.
While Jia notes his work contains some “very unique Chinese historical details”, he feels that it has a global reach. “I think it’s a film for anyone who is interested.” His subjects, he adds, all touch on “common themes that are so universal that all human beings can relate to, such as eating, love and diseases”. In the latter case, Jia Pingwa movingly recounts his 15-year battle with hepatitis B, which he finally overcame.
Disease is, of course, an unfortunate consideration right now with the coronavirus. Jia is one of the few Chinese delegates who has made it to the Berlinale, with 118 cancellations overall due to the outbreak of the virus.
The epidemic has already meant that a film he was due to start shooting in April, set over the spring and summer, has been postponed, possibly indefinitely, with the spread of the virus making pre-production simply impossible.
Author Yu Hua in a still from Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.
Of course, this is another reason why his thoughts have turned to home. Pointing out that this is the second such outbreak in China, following the 2003 Sars epidemic, he offers a positive note: “I do think it’s an opportunity for Chinese people, society and community to really start to re-examine and rethink. It’s a time for reflection and introspection. We must also think about how real voices can actually be heard, in terms of what’s going on in society.”
Would he ever consider using the virus as the backdrop for a future film? “Right now we are still in the midst of it, so I do need to have some time to process it to know how everything unfolds,” he says, cautiously, before adding that this idea of introspection and finding a platform for marginalised voices “will definitely be a theme that you will see in my future films”.
How this plays out will be fascinating to see.