Jia Zhangke | 2hr 34min
Unsatisfied with the escapist, expressionist Fifth Wave of Chinese filmmakers, Jia Zhangke burst onto the scene in the 1990s leading the more grounded Sixth Wave, and with his second film, the neorealist epic, Platform, he turned to China’s recent history to bring in the new millennium. This “epic” descriptor is only really applicable in the way it might be for a film like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – not much “happens” in any individual moment, but the sheer span of time which we spend with the same characters reveals an accumulation of small changes set in motion by an increasingly globalising culture, pressing in on their lives and pushing them in separate directions.
As the 1980s dawn upon the young performers of the state-funded Peasant Cultural Group, they collectively ruminate on what sort of future lies ahead for their country in the year 2000. “The four modernisations: industry, agriculture, defence, science,” one of them conjectures, and he’s not wrong, though clearly they are unprepared for the sort of social and artistic shifts which will impact them in a far more personal manner than anything else. Three years after chairman Mao Zedong’s death, his likeness still adorns the walls of their homes, but in the coming years it is the new Paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, whose influence and embrace of consumerist policies will come to dominate their lives.
Even when we first meet these characters though, many of these changes are already in motion. There are no pivotal turning points in Platform for Jia’s characters, but their lives are rather made up of miniscule shifts in cultural behaviours towards western trends. Foreign films and fashion fads are considered bad influences, and as early on as the ten-minute mark we see one of the group’s central performers, Cui Minliang, being scolded by his parents for wearing bell-bottomed jeans – an attitude he simply puts down to “the generation gap.”
In choosing to shoot on location in China’s Shanxi province, Jia makes the most of the region’s dilapidated architecture, dwarfing his characters beneath these towering, crumbling buildings in an abundance of wide and mid-shots. The lack of structural maintenance is evident, as we return twice to the same set of half-constructed stairs which turn this part of the city into an obstacle course for Jia’s characters to navigate, leap across, and climb. Much like Cuarón would do in Roma 18 years later, Jia often pans his camera around his scenes, soaking in the detail of the dirtied interiors and streets of 1980s China. Early on, a trivial conversation between two performers, Zhang and Zhong, is set right next to a political rally for the newly-imposed one-child policy, and although the two affairs don’t directly collide in this moment, it paints out a politically-charged landscape of cultural turmoil that is slowly seeping into the everyday lives of its citizens.
Later, Cui and Yin, a performer with whom he shares a mutual attraction, meet on the ramparts of a grey brick fortress to discuss their relationship. With the camera planted just halfway around a protruding corner, we are only ever privy to one side of the conversation at a time, as both characters alternate positions into our scope of vision to deliver their own perspective. In doing so Jia effectively creates the same isolating effect that cutting to either side of the conversation might have, and yet through his patient, static camera, he instead uses the imposing architecture of the city to come between his characters.
Eventually Yin finds herself slowly dragged away from her friends and passion to enter a planned marriage. “Everything’s arranged for me,” she quietly laments, and yet even in falling into this traditional custom, she too finds herself swept along a separate strand of consumerism which dominates China’s workplaces and private homes. Though she is bound to her stable, middle-class station in life, even she still can’t help bursting out into a small dance when she finds herself alone in her office, reminiscing on her nostalgic past.
The inevitable privatisation of the Peasant Cultural Group plays out in such understated moments, we might almost hope along with the characters that it won’t affect things too much. There is a brief reflection from one performer on how putting them up for sale effectively cheapens their livelihoods, but it is quickly cut short by the leader’s reassurance that he is making as much of a sacrifice as them. Regardless, we do witness a drastic evolution taking place in Jia’s sprinkling of their performances all throughout. While touring into an urban area, they are requested to “play concerts of light music” as opposed to their more traditional fare, in a bid to appeal to the more worldly city types. Later, Zhang returns home from an overseas trip with some new cassette tapes featuring euro disco music, and the song “Dschinghis Khan” quickly becomes a hit within his social circle.
Bit by bit, the Peasant Cultural Group’s repertoire of Chinese folk music shifts to pop and rock, their muted outfits are replaced by colourful spandex and double denim, and they are eventually renamed the All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band. They have spent their careers spreading the state-approved message that a bright future awaits their generation, and yet by the end these promises are revealed to be utterly empty.
“Young friends, this spring will be yours. Yours and mine. The new generation of the 1980s!”
When it comes to the source of these promises, we turn to the older generations who, while not a significant focus of Platform, do find representation in the form of Cui’s troubled parents. Despite all their moral and ideological reprimands, they are far from sinless, as Cui’s father’s affair is only briefly confronted before it becomes a natural part of life, slowly fragmenting the family over the years.
This is the way relationships come to an end in this new modernised culture – not with a farewell and a hug, but a silent tapering off, disappearing before anyone realises it. This set pattern pays off in an especially weighty scene towards the end, as Cui and Lin run into each other again after years of unresolved separation. Though they ruminate over the old days, the interaction remains morose. The closure they find in this moment together is special, but they also recognise it is not a privilege that they were granted with their other friends, recalling the last times they were together.
“Leaving without a word. And since then, no news.”
These losses and adjustments are incremental yet irreversible, and it is in this slow, gradual development over ten years that Jia’s melancholy reflections on China’s modernisation comes into focus. He isn’t exactly full of praise for the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s either, as he exposes the superficiality which lay beneath its nationalism and deification of Mao, but he rather expresses a nostalgia for the blissful hope and ignorance of youth that seeps away with time. Though we can appreciate the immediate impact of Jia’s stark, minimalistic aesthetics giving visual context to these characters’ struggles along the road to modernity, it is only by the end when we look back at his formally ambitious construction of China over a ten-year span that we realise the full extent of the loss that has taken place.
Platform is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.