In the beginning of Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, a man returns home after 16 years, only to find his entire neighborhood submerged underwater, a casualty of the Three Gorges Dam. In The World, a woman is visited by a long-ago ex-boyfriend. Mountains May Depart features a mother and son separated by many years, miles and even an aspect ratio. Themes of great distance and hesitant return occupy much of the filmmaker’s work, which now spans two decades.
This makes it all the more appropriate that Walter Salles’s documentary Jia Zhangke: A Guy from Fenyang begins with a return trip to Jia’s hometown of Fenyang (if that strikes you as a little on the nose, it’s not new for Salles; his first directing job was a television program including a profile of Akira Kurosawa entitled Kurosawa: Painter of Images). Jia has spent much of his career making films in his home town, or at least his home province of Shanxi. Yet despite the frequency with which he’s shot his movies nearby, there are some formative places he hasn’t visited in a very long time.
The documentary begins with a trip down the main streets of Fenyang, featured prominently in Jia’s first feature, Xiao Wu. Jia brings Salles to his childhood home, an enormous stone building surrounded by many of the same. The complex was originally a prison, which explains the rudimentary quality of the apartments as well as the intimidating character of the architecture. Jia points out how thick the walls are, forbiddingly sound proof. This interest in architectural might is another major theme of his work, which is full of glorious and ancient buildings that either stand tall beside his characters or collapse dramatically behind them.
This all feels like something out of one of Jia’s films, which often mimic handheld documentary aesthetics themselves. Jia hasn’t been to his childhood home in 29 years. The visits he makes to old friends and relatives are certainly warmer than those reunions in, say, Still Life, but they possess the same distance.
Meanwhile, Salles effectively weaves in and out the materials of most filmmaker documentaries, clips of the subject’s work. He moves chronologically, beginning with Xiao Wu and proceeding to Platform, Still Life and A Touch of Sin, with some attention paid to The World and 24 City, as well. Jia leads a tour of his most memorable filming locations, adding a thrill of recognition for fans. Here’s the theater where Platform’s opening scenes were shot, there’s the closet where Dahai keeps his shotgun in A Touch of Sin.
Unfortunately, the reliance on chronology drains some of the momentum. Much of the middle section of the film feels more like a DVD special feature for Still Life, featuring on-camera interviews with cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, sound engineer Zhang Yang and editor Lin Xudong. They offer some interesting insights into the on-the-fly documentary-style shooting of the film, but in the process they derail the dynamic style of Salles’s own documentary.
The most interesting footage shot by Salles, as it turns out, has almost nothing to do with the process behind the making of Jia’s films. It is, rather, a conversation between Jia and his friends about whether he will continue working after A Touch of Sin. This is a scene without tension, in a sense, because Mountains May Depart is now a completed film. Yet the knowledge supplied by Salles that this conversation was filmed one day before the Chinese government revoked the planned release of A Touch of Sin makes this poignant for different reasons.
Jia’s battle with censorship goes back to the very beginning of his career. His first film to get a release in his own country was The World, in 2004. The fact that Platform remains available in China only on bootleg DVD seems to smart the most. The film comes up again and again in the documentary, alternately cited as his most personal and his most epic. The negative reaction of his father, a man still scarred by the Cultural Revolution, still frustrates the filmmaker, as does the fact that it remains unprojected in cinemas.
Every excerpt from Platform included in this documentary is, therefore, something of a homecoming in and of itself. Salles’s treatment of Jia’s early career is likely his greatest accomplishment. It’s proof that these images and characters still profoundly affect him personally, even if his aesthetics have evolved. And if it builds an international audience for Platform, one of the director’s lesser-seen features, all the better.