Few 21st-century filmmakers have had a career arc as fascinating as Jia Zhangke’s. While the Chinese director has been on the cutting edge since his debut Xiao Wu (1997), his work can be divided into distinct periods, from the early independent realism of Platform (2000) and Still Life (2006) to forays into genre and popular modes with Mountains May Depart (2015) and Ash Is Purest White (2018). Throughout, he has maintained a watchful eye on China’s rapid development, weaving the nation’s shifting landscape and the impact it has on its inhabitants into his narratives. Jia has also tackled these same themes in several documentaries, though none of them have attracted the same level of attention as his fiction. His latest nonfiction feature, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, is the best example of this strand of his filmmaking, drawing upon the strengths and particulars of its predecessors.

Jia’s previous nonfiction work was concentrated in a relatively brief period from 2006 to 2010, during which he made three documentaries and one docufiction feature. His first doc, 2006’s Dong, also spurred the creation of a fiction film that same year, Still Life. Its subject is painter Liu Xiaodong, who spends most of the slim 66-minute runtime painting various models and interacting with locals in both Bangkok and the area surrounding the then-in-progress Three Gorges Dam. In its second half, the film breaks off at a few junctures to follow some of the models on quotidian activities. Arguably the most placid of Jia’s films, it’s an intriguing look at the milieu upstream of the Dam, which he would explore in more evocative detail in Still Life.

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Next year came Useless, which sharpens the points of its predecessor. Though putatively focused on the fashion label and exhibition of the same name by designer Ma Ke, it takes on numerous subjects from pointedly different socioeconomic strata. The film begins at an average clothing factory in South China, observing the workers as they go about their tasks, and devotes its last third to garment workers in Jia’s hometown Fenyang, even taking a detour to observe coal miners there. While the juxtaposition of haute couture and small town is drastic, the movie understands the value of letting both a major designer and small-time tailors engage in self-reflection and demonstrate creativity.

2008’s 24 City initially appears to be cut from the same cloth as Jia’s documentaries, but gradually reveals a more daring conceit. The interviews that form the bulk of the film are conducted with both real factory workers and actors, including Zhao Tao and Joan Chen, who play composite characters. While his first two docs were typified by observational long takes, this film paved the way for him to rely more on interviews.

His final documentary from this period, I Wish I Knew (2010), examines the history of Shanghai, utilizing a bevy of interviews, archival film clips, and contemporary footage of the city, sometimes featuring Zhao Tao roaming the city as an almost spectral presence. A diffuse, mysterious film, it forgoes rigorous structure for loose association, even bringing in Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien as a talking head at one point. There’s a slight disconnect between the often raw stories the subjects relate and the film’s poetic ambitions. It’s oddly sprawling and difficult to encapsulate, but often better for it.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue functions in much the same way as I Wish I Knew, but it’s more focused and ambitious than its antecedents. It principally interviews three writers — Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong — but uses their words to evoke essentially the entire history of China over the second half of the 20th century. His subjects are allowed to speak at great length, often touching on piercing insights and ruminative memories, but they are never closed off from their broader social context — whether that be demonstrated in the locations of their interviews or in the film’s intercutting of dinners, performances, and other interstitial moments, especially involving Chinese youth. Jia has achieved a strong synthesis between his varying nonfiction approaches. Much like Ash Is Purest White, it is a summative work, and one as worthy of praise and contemplation as his more celebrated fiction films.

Dong, 24 City, and I Wish I Knew are available to stream on various platforms. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue opens in select theaters May 28.

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Ryan Swen

Ryan Swen is a freelance film critic and a cinema and media studies MA candidate at the University of Southern California. He co-hosts the podcast Catalyst...