Unknown Pleasures (2002)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 53min

In some ways, Unknown Pleasures is Jia Zhangke’s spiritual sequel to Platform, immersing us in the materialistic, hybridised culture of Eastern and Western influences that emerged within China’s cultural landscape at the end of his sophomore film. The rallies we observed marching in support of the one-child policy have finally taken root, so much so that those babies born in the wake of the program have now grown up into the “birth control generation”, and become our focus here in Unknown Pleasures. They are isolated, passive teenagers, whose limited attention spans are dominated by television sets detaching them from reality. 
Jia has previously demonstrated his ability to work resourcefully on tight budgets, but as his first film shot on digital rather than film, there are moments here where the footage looks more like a home video in some clumsy movements and over-exposed images. That said, this switch to handheld digital also allows for more lightness and spontaneity in his unbroken tracking shots, and especially allows for more freedom in his panning camera, which still remains one of his best tools. He smoothly shifts between mid and long shots of his characters, letting our attention wander to an arrest taking place elsewhere on the street, or to one of many TV sets they silently watch together. Most importantly, the Rossellini-inspired neorealism seeps through in the derelict, industrial architecture, towering over the bleak landscapes through which these lonely teenagers wander. 

Using architecture as character has always been one of Jia’s strengths, and here he lets the derelict buildings of the Shangxi province dominate the rundown landscape.
There is no faking the natural, blue wash lighting in this attractive shot.

It isn’t until about forty minutes in that we witness the first major disruption to the lives of our three main characters. As Xiao Ji sits at home, drinking his soda while the news plays in the background the next room over, an explosive sound pierces the monotony. Not long after, we discover that a local textile mill has been destroyed, and the object of Xiao Ji’s desire, Qiao Qiao, is in need of his assistance to get her injured father to the hospital. Through this crisis, the two grow a little bit closer, and as they celebrate afterwards Jia draws parallels to the boisterous couples of Pulp Fiction. Xiao Ji first imagines themselves as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny holding up the diner, and then in an uncharacteristically energetic whip pan, Jia cuts to a discotheque where the two perform the famous Jack Rabbit Slim’s dance. 

A great motif here – even when televisions aren’t the primary focus, they are often there in the background, playing out news bulletins and reality shows.

While Jia grounds Unknown Pleasures in real historical events such as the announcement of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Xiao Ji and his friend, Bin Bin, seem to act in sharp opposition through their emulations of movies, even as their attempts fall humorously short. There is no fighting against the messiness of reality, which constantly forces them back into the helpless passivity they are so familiar with. While these young adults find some comfort in Zhuangzi’s philosophy to “do what feels good,” these ancient words ultimately become little more than a despairing assertion of what little agency they really have in the face of this constrained, globalised Chinese culture.

A moving ending, as Jia takes several minutes to slowly pan his camera almost the full way around the room to follow his characters. Then finally he rests on this final frame, with Bin Bin singing a poignant song about spiritual freedom, all while handcuffed.

Unknown Pleasures is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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