The new millennium was launched in Chinese cinema by this 2000 film by Jia Zhangke, in which the story of a group of young musicians reveals the hollowness of the Chinese economic miracle.
Jia Zhangke is mainland China’s most cutting-edge director, challenging that country’s official story of economic triumph with poetic and elliptical tales about ordinary people adrift in the stream of modern change. The best place to start with Jia is the 2000 film Platform, which follows the lives of a group of young people from a provincial Chinese town in the 1980s. They are members of one of the many state-sponsored theatrical troupes, traveling the countryside to perform propaganda plays. As government policy shifts from Maoism to limited privatization, the troupe evolves into what passes for a rock and roll band.
The story sounds straightforward enough, but the treatment is wholly original. Jia relies heavily on long shots, and rarely moves the camera. Consequently, the characters, usually viewed as a group, are overshadowed by the landscape. The buildings are block-like and bare. When a young couple, unsure of whether or not to break up, wanders the town’s walled fortifications, the gray stonework towers over them, accentuating their loneliness.
Rather than depict the passage of time through a series of dramatic changes, the film presents long sections of slice-of-life scenes in what amounts to real time. People in the same room avoiding each other’s glances, smoking, making comments, staring out the window—we only gradually come to distinguish the personalities and relationships within the group, and they’re all under a cloud of passivity and alienation. Jia has found the visual counterpart to a social order that elevates a narrow idea of “the people” above the feelings, thoughts, and wishes of individuals. At one point, the troupe’s truck stalls in the middle of nowhere, and while they sit there, the radio plays a song with the lyrics, “We are all waiting.” Life for these young people is a constant waiting for something that never comes.
The film’s style slowly and patiently soaks the audience in the sense of a diminishment of self in favor of an anonymous outward force. The private realm is always portrayed furtively, even subliminally. Frustrated desire is represented by new fashions—the boys wearing bell bottoms, the girls using make-up and getting perms. The adoption of a market-driven economy does not liberate them; conformity only puts on a new face, and their cheesy rock shows are greeted with either apathy or derision. We are left to divine the stirrings of inner life through an effort of imagination—a situation similar to that of the characters. A scene near the end with a young office worker dancing by herself sums it all up beautifully.
Platform is enveloped by a remarkable soundtrack of incidental noise: vehicles, distant voices, music from radios, the daily background of small town existence. This brilliant work recreates a repressive world in the most counter-intuitive way: from the outside in.
The deeply poetic and evocative film Platform is available on DVD.