Moving fluidly between fiction and documentary, the work of Chinese director Jia Zhangke assumes many forms, often within the same film. His latest, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, is a documentary portrait of rural China, told through the lives and words of four authors — Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong — whose work collectively spans from the 1949 communist revolution to the present day. Combining reflections on each era’s politics with memories of the authors’ rural upbringings, Jia charts the cultural evolution of China in intimate strokes, offering an alternate history of a country whose rapid urbanization has masked the many struggles of its most impoverished regions.
In the days leading up to the film’s US release, Jia and I connected on Zoom to discuss hidden histories and the generation gap separating today’s Chinese youth from their rural roots.
Hyperallergic: I’ve heard you refer to the new film as the third in your “Artists Trilogy.” At what point did you begin to conceive of the film as such?
Jia Zhangke: I shot the first two films in the trilogy back-to-back. In 2006 I made Dong, about the painter Liu Xiaodong, and in 2007 I made Useless, about the fashion designer Ma Ke. Immediately after I thought I would make the third part, about artists who are either architects or city planners. The reason for this was that during that time, Chinese society was going through this dramatic transformation of urbanization and urban planning, with a lot of streets and buildings being demolished, redesigned, and rebuilt. I had found quite a few architects and city planners that would be perfect for the project, but they didn’t seem to want to share on camera the things I wanted to capture, so we postponed the project.
It wasn’t until recently that I started to think again about the third installment. For the past few years, I’ve been going back and forth between Beijing and Jia Family Village [Note: no relation to the director], and while I was there, I noticed that they are facing many issues — and not uniquely Chinese issues, but global issues in terms of the younger generations leaving rural areas for urban settings. Nowadays in these rural areas, you tend to see mostly older people; younger people don’t stay in these areas for long. So now when these younger generations have children, they will have no connection or memories or understanding of their rural or agricultural roots. In the case of Jia Family Village, you go from having 5,000 years of agricultural history to, in one generation, having this break or gap as a result of urbanization. This was very much the impetus for me wanting to capture these rural memories and experiences and histories for this third installment.
H: How did you come to the four main subjects of the film? Do they have certain characteristics or writing styles that you felt were particularly suitable to the story you were trying to tell?
JZ: As I was thinking about who I could call on to tell these rural histories, one particular element in Jia Family Village stood out: a literary tradition with very strong connections with the first writer depicted in the film, Ma Feng. He was born and raised in Jia Family Village, and he often wrote about the region. I thought I could use writers born in similar areas who have been writing about these regions as a way to make this documentary come alive.
For these four writers, I wanted to focus on when they were the most prolific. So Ma Feng, he was born in the ’20s and most prolific in the ’50s and ’60s, while Jia Pingwa mostly wrote in the ’70s and ’80s, Yu Hua about the ’80s and ’90s, and Liang Hong about anything from the ’90s until now. So it made sense for me to put these authors together as a kind of relay to talk about their formative years, and even though they have some overlap, the most important eras for each of them represent specific moments in time. All together, I thought I could tell the story of these villages from 1949 to now.
But more interesting for me was that I could capture each author’s unique way of storytelling and their worldview through the way they talk through their memories, lives, and history, as well as how they depict their characters. If you look at Ma Feng, for example, he was very much informed by the collectivistic environment and social climate at the time, whereas Jia Pingwa was trying to reclaim a classic literary tradition and at the same time, because of the reforms brought about by the Cultural Revolution, establish a dialogue with artists like Gauguin and van Gogh. Meanwhile, Yu Hua was very much in keeping with the contemporary literary landscape, and thus able to evoke Kafka, Faulkner, and Marx in his writings, while Liang Hong’s work is very much made under the sign of globalization and the internet age. In addition to learning about the last 70 years of rural history, you’re witnessing the evolution of Chinese literature.
H: Ma Feng is the only writer who’s no longer alive. How did you decide to have his daughter speak for him?
JZ: For me, to put together a comprehensive understanding of these rural areas during Ma Feng’s time, it wasn’t sufficient to rely only on his daughter, because I really needed that firsthand account. That’s the reason why, in addition to the daughter, I included two village elders, both in their 90s. These elders had direct experiences and interactions with Ma Feng that I relied on to offer eyewitness testimony to what happened during this period. All three of them talk about the collectivization of society that occurred during Ma Feng’s time. When we look back and rethink the ideas from that era, we might now have different assessments, viewpoints, or understandings of these concepts, but what I want to articulate with the film is that we have to admit that this happened, no matter how we interpret what happened. Through these three people, I wanted to capture the social and historical contexts for these things.
However, this also posed a couple of problems with regards to interviewing them. They’re very old, of course, but they also come from a society that focused on collectivism rather than individualism, which means that it is very difficult for them to talk from a first-person, or “I,” perspective. It was a challenge to interview them in such a way that they would open up in front of the camera and share their private and subjective memories. And since they are old, they tend to not talk in chronological order, and instead jump around, skip ahead, and flash back in a way that isn’t always coherent. We had to spend a lot of time during post-production finding a coherent logic and structure in what they were saying, to properly distill their memories.
H: Is this hesitancy to talk from a first-person perspective one reason you chose to shoot the interviews from multiple angles and from what seems like a quite a distance?
JZ: For me, the compositions evolve in a natural way within the film’s structure. For the first interviews, I wanted to things to be impressionistic, so we started with images of old people eating, and through that group concept slowly but surely segue into individual memories. In other words, I wanted to locate a visual concept that would take us from the collectivist to individualist way of viewing memories.
H: Much of the film is about the official record of Chinese history and the personal experiences of each author, and how those are quite different. In general, what is the public’s understanding of these events?
JZ: In terms of the grand narrative, the “official” version of history is pretty much the same for everyone, at least in terms of how people understand the big historical junctures. However, I do think what’s missing in the grand narrative are the details. Everything is stated in such an abstract or statistical way. That’s why I think films like this are very much needed. You can’t feel abstract or statistical histories. There’s no impact — it’s meaningless. What’s missing are visceral connections with history. Of course, there are many ways you can hide certain parts of history. But what’s more important to realize is that what’s often hidden is not necessarily what happened, but how things happened, and those are the details which I hope, once seen, will offer compelling evidence as to why we and other documentary filmmakers make the films we make.
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue opens in select theaters May 28.