The Past Is Another Country

June 1, 2021

This article appeared in the May 20 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Welsh cultural historian Raymond Williams wrote that “the contrast of the country and city is one of the major forms in which we become conscious of a central part of our experience and of the crises of our society.” It’s hard to imagine Jia Zhangke disagreeing. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution his father was deemed guilty of belonging to the landlord class and banished to the village where he had been born. There Jia’s father tried to keep his head low working as a schoolteacher and supporting his newly straitened young family. It was, Jia has argued, a valuable education: “It’s not peasant life itself that is meaningful but the ways of surviving and understanding things that derive from it . . . How to use it to empathize with the way Chinese people feel today, to examine the changes in interpersonal relations?”

The question is re-posed if not resolved in his latest film, Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue. It’s Jia’s first documentary feature in a decade (after I Wish I Knew, 2010), and, like his portrait of painter Liu Xiaodong in Dong (2006) and fashion designer Ma Ke in Useless (2007), explores the role of art in contemporary China—its power to unlock repressed memories, un-forget neglected regions, and serve as a place of heightened contemplation in a nation that vigorously promotes ideological obeisance. This time he uses the Lyuliang Literature Festival, which he himself established in his native Shanxi province, as an opportunity to hear from writers whose family stories, spanning many decades, form a library of conviviality and intergenerational hurt. Filmed in resonant settings that include a back-street eatery and a tailor shop, their pensive reminiscences are interlaced with quotes from their work, luminous landscape shots, and even a clip from Jia’s Platform (2000) that illustrates the speed of local change.

Swimming Out’s collective story begins with the daughter of the writer Ma Feng (1922–2004) recalling the pre-writing career of her father who would go on to become a key figure in the social realism–inclined (and delightfully named) “Potato School” movement that flourished in the 1950s and ’60s. His novels were written for and about the peasants alongside whom he lived after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. They depicted rural dwellers as the heartbeat of the new nation. The memories of Jia Pingwa (b.1952) are less rosy: as the teenage son of an official “counter-revolutionary,” he struggled to find work and ended up painting Maoist slogans on construction projects; he contracted hepatitis B during an epidemic in the 1980s; his best-known novel, Ruined City (1993), was deemed pornographic and banned.

 Perhaps the most cinematic memories are those of Yu Hua (b.1960) who matter-of-factly recalls how, as a child, he spotted a classmate crying in the corner of a schoolroom. It turns out the boy’s father had jumped into a well the night before. The boy didn’t stop crying when he was invited to join a game of table tennis. Or even after he won the game. Yu, who would go on to write bawdily inventive novels that satirize some of the grotesque transformations of China in the 1990s and 2000s, also remembers that the few books that survived the Cultural Revolution were passed around so frequently in school that they fell apart. Their front and back pages disappeared. Yu never knew how stories began or ended. Often he didn’t even know their titles or their authors. “I was haunted by those missing endings,” he admits.

 Jia Pingwa and Yu seem to have come to terms with their pasts. That’s less true for Liang Hong (b.1973), whose textured essays about rural China have won her sizable audiences. She repeatedly chokes up as she recounts how, when she was just a young girl, her mother suffered a stroke and lost her ability to speak. None of the small businesses her father started ever amounted to much. When he was remarried—to a woman whose previous husband had battered her—his children refused to accept their new stepmother. Her pain—personal, unresolved, keen—is the marrow of Swimming Out: it is, Jia hints, something to be shared rather than be ashamed of. Much happier the nation that can articulate grief and vulnerability rather than fetishise and flex its virility.

 Not a few Chinese filmmakers have charted their country’s rush toward urbanization over the last few decades. They have tracked how its mantra of modernity at any cost has left swathes of the countryside desolate. As a Westerner, to watch these documentaries can be rather unnerving; it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that we are witnessing specters of our own past, a bloody panorama of violence and evacuations that, in the guise of  “collateral damage,” lies beneath what we blandly call the Industrial Revolution.

 But Swimming Out isn’t a litany of atrocities or an exercise in dour, festival-circuit durationalism. Rather it’s bathed in a sunlight that helps offset its rueful, shadow-casting narratives. It lingers on the faces of older men and women at a communal kitchen and a theater performance—they’re weathered, smiling, contemplative, rapt. Jia is absorbed by their absorption, their sense of togetherness. By contrast, younger passengers on a train carriage are shown wearing headphones, scrolling and refreshing, alone in their digital cocoons. Villages in this film are neither real nor romanticized; they’re what Liang elsewhere has called “a shared unconscious.” Against the acceleration, amnesia, and solipsism of Chinese cities, they represent memory, nourishing slowness, and an embattled sense of community. 

 Is Jia being nostalgic? I doubt if he would rebut the charge. Nostalgia is rarely a simple emotion—and it’s often deployed as a form of political critique. Early on in Swimming Out, a woman reads aloud these words by Yu Hua: “Remembering the past or longing for your native place are, in reality, ways of reaching for reassurance when we feel some disorientation in life.” Jia does strike a few false notes elsewhere, though: most viewers in the U.S. will be unfamiliar with the featured authors, who merit better contextualization; the film has been split into 18 segments (titles include “journeys” and “culture”) that resemble chapters on a pedagogic DVD; its soundtrack, heavy on Shostakovich and Rachmaninov (and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye”!), is deployed too portentously for such intimate, restrained material.

Swimming Out retreads too much old territory for it to be considered one of Jia’s major works. It does, however, contain one of his most endearing scenes: the director asks Liang’s Beijing-raised son to introduce himself in Henan dialect. At first he’s shy and says he can’t remember it. He dredges his memory to no avail, the words disappearing like the water levels in his family’s village. His mother intercedes, uttering phrases and sentences (“I turned fourteen this year,” “My hobby is physics”) that he copies—before discovering that he can say them himself. He smiles. The language of his forebears, the sun and the soil it conjures up, its melodies and mood worlds: suddenly the past is no longer past.

Sukhdev Sandhu directs the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University and runs the Texte und Töne publishing imprint.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *