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Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhang-ke) 2002
One of the characters in Jia Zhang-ke’s Unknown Pleasures remarks at the start of the film, “Art sets the stage; let the economy perform on it,” but evidence in the movie shows that his assessment is dead wrong. In this up to the minute look at modern China, that proverb doesn’t apply any longer, since capitalist globalization has pushed forth major changes in both the quality of life of the citizens that populate the country and the art that the country creates. Clearly, there’s an increasing inclination in this rapidly homogenizing world for the pop culture of other countries to have a direct effect on what is seen in the media, but as the presence of foreign product grows, the film shows, it pushes away traditional culture. The people shown here quite literally have an inflated sense of American worth. By and large, it is the economy that defines parameters that culture functions within here. In capitalist society, art becomes a tradable commodity thanks to advertising. Unknown Pleasure shows a world in which traditional Chinese costume and dance exist only in strip clubs and alcohol ads. The lone man who sings for his own pleasure and not financial gain is presented as a vagrant with questionable sanity.
Unknown Pleasures isn’t really a story about artists, however. Instead it uses the corruption art to show how transparent such vast social changes can seem to the average citizens. Though the young protagonists of the movie are clearly discontented, they have no outlet for their frustration. The motorcycle rides at the beginning and end of the movie want to transport us somewhere, but for these characters, there’s no obvious escape. When most of what they see has been test marketed and marketed by conglomerates, however, you can’t cast stones at them for their lack of insight. They find the availability of free entertainment that advertising provides a diversion from their lives, which are filled mostly with the pursuit of more money. Art, or the bastardized version of it that exists in this over-saturated culture, has an anesthetizing effect. It dulls the pain that they feel but can’t articulate. Furthermore, the source of the pain seems to be the cure. When a power plant explodes, the chaos makes the community’s latent anxiety momentarily surface and someone screams, “The Americans are attacking!” as if the encroaching capitalism poses a direct threat to their sensibilities. Perhaps nowhere is the insidious danger of this threat made more apparent than in the way a Karaoke song so easily substitutes for dialogue when things get uncomfortable. Instead of supplementing their lives somehow, art and advertising becomes both a means of living and a reason to continue producing work. Essentially, in this self-propagating cycle, people work for advertisers to buy the products that are being advertised. The two leads’ idols are thugs from crime movies and cartoon characters, but for all their macho posturing, one is still a virgin and the other still has his mother cook dinner for him. They communicate and think only in terms of what they’ve seen in movies and on television. The media keeps them stupid so they will only want things that the media can provide.
Jia includes footage of a press conference announcing Beijing’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics, evidence of new construction of roads in the dilapidated city, and signals of the new options available to the Chinese consumers, but these ex-government employees and residents of publicly funded housing, who have been left behind in the conversion to a more capitalistic society reap few of the benefits of the supposed economic prosperity that reform has brought. Their aimless lives are presented as an amusing series of anecdotes that are humorous and random enough to keep the movie from ever feeling like a sociology lecture. One character states as a philosophy, “We should do what feels good,” but as much as such a momentary ethos makes sense for the profiteers of consumerism, it leaves its believers high and dry in the long run. To be employed in this system is to become a commodity, and in that sense the freedoms gained by capitalism are matched with dehumanizing restrictions. By the end of the movie, a girl who started out naïve is rebuffing men by saying, “I’m too expensive for you.” The rest of the cast, who seemed to do just fine before the economic shift, is similarly chewed up by the system. An erotic masseuse who has a functioning business is essentially put out of a job during a government crackdown on social ills. The capitalist whitewashing that occurs seems to work best on the macro level. A powerful gang boss (who used to be a gym teacher before the financial revolution!) who is being built up as the villain of the piece dies off screen, and the movie barely shrugs its shoulders. With the powerful this disposable and replaceable, the young slackers at the center of the story are almost hopeless. Even though they’re generally out of touch with their reality (one calls it being an “outsider”) they still realize their need to contribute. As such, there’s something inherently sad and desperate when they attempt to get a real job or enlist in the Army.
Shot on digital video, Unknown Pleasures unfortunately looks washed out. It’s so bad at times almost as if some of the images are evaporating before our eyes, but it doesn’t really feel like the visual scheme of the movie is intentional. In a movie that’s composed mostly of master shots, the blurring, overlit visuals seem somewhat out of place. Perhaps though digital film is a necessary evil for a foreign filmmaker who’s making a movie this quickly (it references news events from the tail end of 2001 and premiered at Cannes in 2002) on a budget so small. Whatever visual inspiration might be missing is made up for with the soundtrack, however. Jia captures the endless grind of urban progress with background noises such as busses and television dominating the soundscape. The frequent bursts of pop music that worm their way into these characters’ lives are always played too loudly or softly, so that the sound fidelity becomes distorted and inaccurate. The plethora of frequent but carefully chosen bits of both Eastern and Western pop culture add up so that when we finally see a girl riding on a bicycle, it seem entirely outmoded, and that’s the last thing one would expect to say about a Chinese movie. While the capitalist culture that dominates Unknown Pleasures seems a bit more exciting than what surrounds it, at the same time it’s made clear that those pleasures all lie on the surface level and are quite disposable. Though it’s tough to accept such a thoroughly negative appraisal of a country’s state of affairs, Unknown Pleasures certainly makes a strong case for one (though in all fairness he still finds plenty to laugh at), and in doing so holds up a mirror to the rest of the world.
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