Tue. Oct 20th, 2020

NYFF Review: Jia Zhangke takes an unfocused look at Chinese history and literature with ‘Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue’

Jia Zhangke’s firmly established himself as one of China’s most exciting, innovative filmmakers, whether it’s in fiction (as 2018’s meditative Ash is Purest White can attest) or in documentary, as with his shorter docs, 2006’s Dong and 2007’s Useless. Like those latter films, his latest, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, turns its eye to the lives of prominent Chinese artists, using their perspective to explore the country (and Shanxi Province, which he calls home) and its cultural history. This time, however, Jia may have overplayed his oft-naturalistic hand, resulting in a doc more long-winded than illuminating. 

Using the occasion of a Shanxi literary festival where they and other artists have gathered, Zhangke spends much of Swimming out Till the Sea Turns Blue interviewing three Chinese authors — Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong — about the ways their respective childhoods during the early days of the Chinese Cultural Revolution impacted their writing and selves, even in the rural environments of Shanxi. Ma Feng, a fourth local writer long since passed, is also remembered by family and colleagues, sharing stories to the camera in the film’s early stretch.

Split into eighteen chapters (many of them arbitrary, either continuing an interview already in progress or focusing on a single image or vignette), Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue seemingly fits into Jia’s naturalistic, lilting style. Ambiance is the name of the game in many of Swimming’s most effective moments, where Jia simply sits on a train and films a host of young people with their faces buried in their phones or monitors the foot traffic in Jia Family Village’s gorgeous town squares during the festival. These moments really center the regional character of Shanxi province, and it’s truly pleasant to spend some quiet moments here, all filmed with love and care by a filmmaker who clearly remembers these areas fondly.

But it’s in the talking-head segments, where Jia Pingwa, Yu, and Liang sit down to regale their stories, that Swimming loses that meditative pace and quickly becomes tedious. To be sure, all three are winsome presences with a number of interesting anecdotes: Yu’s the most amiable speaker, as he talks about how he’d imagine the endings to books whose final pages were ripped out by Chinese censors, thus firing up his own sense of imagination. Liang, for her part, breaks hearts when she visibly tears up when discussing her mother’s declining health as a child. But generally, Jia holds on them for far too long; there are no cutaways to their stories, which meander and bog down in minutiae within a few minutes. 

Perhaps the biggest hindrance to non-Chinese audiences is the complete lack of context the film provides. Granted, foreign filmmakers shouldn’t expect to hold the hands of Western audiences, and to be sure Jia is a far cry from Zhang Yimou in terms of his desire to cater to viewers outside the confines of his home country. But apart from some brief snippets of poetry or prose from each author that appear on screen to bookend their appearances, we’re not given much information as to who these writers are, the content/themes of their works, and so on. 

The authors mention some of their writings, but only in terms of process, or conversations with their publicists, and the like, but hardly ever the content. You get the impression they’ve written extensively about Shanxi province, and live there to catalog the way this part of the country has changed over the years. Unfortunately, without doing your homework beforehand, their grander significance to the narrative — and what Jia’s trying to say about Shanxi province — is lost.

At nearly two hours, perhaps this is proof that Jia’s documentary work is better when focused; his previous two docs, of which this completes an unofficial trilogy, both clock in at less than ninety minutes. But for all of Swimming’s intermittent beauty — the pale yellow of a wheat field harvested by villagers, a late-film conversation with Liang’s son where he’s retaught his Henan dialect — Jia overstuffs it with patchy, inelegant conversations that border on opaque. One wonders if another pass in the editing room could have trimmed these conversations down to give them more focus, immediacy, and import for audiences who may not necessarily know who these people are. Jia Zhangke’s signature rumination is there, the wistful musings of a rural Chinese province he holds very dear to his heart. But rumination can often give way to boredom, and by leaving his audience adrift to put together too many puzzle pieces, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue becomes one of the filmmaker’s least effective works.

This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival.

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