Jacques Tati: The Mime of Modern France

Director Archives

YearFilmGrade
1949Jour de FêteR
1953Monsieur Hulot’s HolidayMS
1958Mon OncleMP
1967PlaytimeMP
1971TraficR/HR
Tati’s playfully artificial decor underscores his own physical humour, masterfully bouncing the two off each other.

Best Film

Playtime. This easily belongs among the greatest displays of production design committed to film, perfectly merging Jacques Tati’s visual ambition, social satire, and sharply staged slapstick. The construction of Tativille is a staggering achievement on its own, blending a monochrome palette with harsh textures and sharp angles to build an artificial city that is both familiar and entirely the product of one whimsical, ingenious imagination. To then shoot it in wide shots that turn these bizarre edifices into perfect frames and obstacles for Tati’s physical gags is another cinematic triumph altogether. And then in considering the vignette narrative structure that whisks us between parts of the city and which gives this film its distinct form, it becomes apparent that Playtime is Tati’s best.

A room of grey office cubicles, trapping its workers in claustrophobic boxes and Hulot in a confusing labyrinth.

Most Overrated

Playtime. The TSPDT list gets it right in letting it sit at #1 of 1967, but having it at #49 of all time might be overly lofty praise. I would have it sitting in the #100-150 range – no insult to the film at all, but there are slightly greater cinematic achievements out there.

Wall-length windows become glass boxes, containing Hulot inside rigid, artificial structures and making for some superb displays of set design.

Most Underrated

Mon Oncle. Its ranking at #402 of all time on the TSPDT list isn’t terrible, but it should be sitting in the masterpiece range, around the top 250. Before Playtime, this was Tati’s best film, and shows off a wonderfully outlandish display of architecture sending up impractical modern design trends. There is also the sweet narrative through line of Monsieur Hulot’s relationship with his nephew, paying off in a heart-warming conclusion.

Geometric shapes and angles at the nearly monochromatic Villa Arpel, “ultra-modern” in its stylish décor but barely practical for everyday living.

Gem to Spotlight

Trafic. This isn’t quite near the level of Tati’s top 3 films, but his resourcefulness here is truly impressive given that he was heading towards bankruptcy at this point in his career. Rather than using impressive architectural structures as the basis of his visual satire, here he hits on the ultimate paradox of an inept modern society – sitting in high-tech, metal boxes that are designed to drive us into the future, but which instead sit bumper-to-bumper in frustratingly stagnant lanes of traffic.

The perfect paradox of modern society – these machines designed to push us into the future keep us rooted to the spot. On top of everything else, Tati is a skilled satirist.

Ranking

  1. Playtime
  2. Mon Oncle
  3. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday
  4. Trafic
  5. Jour de Fête
The first appearance of Monsieur Hulot in 1953 sets him up as one of cinema’s great comedic characters, more comfortable among children than he is with adults.

Cultural Context and Artistic Innovations

A Spark of Inspiration

In the 1930s, long before his days as a director, Jacques Tati was performing in music halls across France, his act being described as “partly ballet and partly sport, partly satire and partly a charade.” It was also around this time that he began acting in shorts, introducing him to the world of film where he would eventually find his stride. His first effort at directing was the 1947 short, L’Ecole des facteurs, and while it was well-received, it is more notable than anything for providing the comedic foundation of his 1949 feature debut, Jour de Fête, which follows a similar line of comedic gags.

It is evident right away where Tati’s primary inspiration lies. Buster Keaton is written all across his deadpan expression and physics-defying stunts, as well as his dedication to using the entire frame set back in wide shots to play out gags. In his narrative structures of comedic vignettes and social critiques of modernity, Charlie Chaplin is very much present, though with a distinctly French twist. The invasion of American commercialism in small-town France is his primary satirical target in Jour de Fête, as he longs for simpler times where efficiency wasn’t the end goal. Like Chaplin, he is also a romantic at heart. His characters do not seek love, but every so often they come across a woman with similar innocent ideals, and the two find solace in each other while the rest of society keeps operating on its own nonsensical wavelength.

Who would have guessed how many gags you could get out one bike – Tati’s style of comedy is endlessly inventive, and makes wonderful use of the whole frame like Buster Keaton before him.

Of course, the silent cinema influence is most of all evident in the dialogue, or lack thereof. Rarely does it hold any key information we couldn’t glean from the visuals, and so instead it simply becomes part of his lush sound design, delivering character information through their vocal tones rather than their actual words. Around them, bells, squeaky chairs, and clacking shoes among an array of other everyday items fill in Tati’s intricate soundscapes, often accentuating gags with well-timed sound effects.

Tati’s work is pervaded by a childlike wonder, seen here in the final shot of Jour de Fête where this small boy gleefully chases the disassembled carousel horses down the street.
The Reign of Monsieur Hulot

In 1953, perhaps the most significant cultural icon associated with Tati arrived. Monsieur Hulot is the bumbling, pipe-puffing, good-natured figure at the centre of all his greatest films, played by Tati himself. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday solidifies him as an extraordinary director, but the film is also greatly helped along by the presence of this distinctive character, whose peculiar fashion, long lurching strides, and childlike mannerisms sets him apart in any crowd. Just as you could draw a line directly from Chaplin’s Tramp to Tati’s Hulot, so too does Hulot become a direct inspiration on contemporary comedic characters – most of all Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, whose silent antics are strongly reminiscent of Hulot’s ventures through a world he can’t quite comprehend.

There is also the development of his voice as a satirist in the 1950s, pursuing similar critiques of modernity that he initiated in Jour de Fête, though additionally targeting the superficial class structures, fashions, and technologies of mid-century France. Humanity’s efforts to progress as a society and grow more efficient ultimately has the opposite effect in Tati’s films, setting characters back with designs and systems that only serve to complicate their lives. The assembly line gag in Mon Oncle particularly calls to mind a strikingly similar one in Chaplin’s Modern Times, letting his inspiration peek through quite explicitly.

Clean precision turns to controlled chaos in Tati’s factory scene, throwing back to Chaplin’s Modern Times.

On a cinematic level, Tati’s greatest accomplishment through the 1950s and 60s is his architectural constructions, at times even rivalling Michelangelo Antonioni with his ambitious urban structures filling in characters. Instead of using these to paint out wandering tales of isolated, wealthy Italians though, his constructions are brilliant oddities, often built on sets rather than shot on location. From the ramshackle, Dr Seuss-style apartment complex in Mon Oncle to the sprawling, monochrome city he created for Playtime, there is no understating his wildly impressive visions which land him among some of cinema history’s finest, most perfectionistic production designers. Every piece is curated, arranged, and shot with intensive purpose, which always comes back to the framing of characters in environments that are wildly beyond their control, and which diminish them in turn. To trace the progression of this through his career as well, it is clear that up until the 1970s he is trying to top his previous film in sheer scale, leading to his finest achievement of all in Playtime.

Tati’s intricate dioramas reflecting their eccentric inhabitants. A huge influence on Wes Anderson, most of all in this set piece and gag that was recently paid homage to in The French Dispatch.
Tati’s magnificent use of architecture as character rivals Michelangelo Antonioni – the main difference being everything in Playtime is an artificial set, uniting under a singular comedic vision.
Bankruptcy and Decline

Tati was one of the few French filmmakers working in the 1960s to neither be grouped in with the French New Wave artists innovating cinema, nor be targeted by them for perpetuating the industry’s bland, middlebrow “Tradition de qualité”. In this way, he exists in a sort of bubble of his own, coasting by on a unique style that calls back to cinema’s past more than it does push it into the future. As such, there is not much of a safety net protecting him from the massive financial failure of Playtime, which is less an indicator of its quality, and more of its extraordinarily large budget which could not be recouped.

1971’s Trafic is by no means a disappointment, but almost any film following the glorious Playtime would suffer in comparison. Though the visual work and production design is a step down, it remains thoroughly impressive for its sheer resourcefulness. Rather than reflecting characters in the towering architecture around them, cars are instead rendered as extensions of their quirks and foibles, and additionally carry on Tati’s criticisms of inept modern technology.

Sadly, Trafic was also the last onscreen appearance by Tati as Monsieur Hulot. Having failed to make a profit here too, Tati was driven to make his final film in 1974, Parade – also his first failure. There is something of a mannered feel to this, which isn’t surprising given that it is essentially a variety show of magicians, acrobats, clowns, and animals. Parade is the equivalent of a Netflix comedy special for Tati, and is far from cinematic or anywhere near the heights of his best work. It doesn’t help either that it was shot on fuzzy videotape that exposes the tiny budget he had to work with. For a director who once possessed such ridiculously monumental cinematic ambitions, it is an unfortunate film to bow out on.

Cars used as extensions of people in Trafic, connecting humanity to their inefficient, idiosyncratic machines.

Frequent Collaborators

NameRole# of Films
Jacques LegrangeWriter3
Suzanne BaronEditor2
Alain RomansMusic Composer2
Henri MarquetWriter2

Reviews

Trafic (1971)

Trafic may not possess the sheer ambition of Jacques Tati’s previous films, but his resourcefulness remains remarkable, uncovering rich satire in recognising that the attempts of drivers trying to get somewhere while helplessly sitting in stagnant crowds of high-tech, metal boxes may be the ultimate paradox of an inept modern society.

Playtime (1967)

Jacques Tati’s bizarre, elaborate vision of Paris in Playtime is an intricately stacked construction of modernist architecture and comedic set pieces, sending up the soulless conformity of commercial society with a cinematic vision as monumentally ambitious as it is methodically delicate.

Mon Oncle (1958)

Keeping the spirit of silent cinema alive, Jacques Tati puts his flair for physicals gags and intricate architectural set pieces to use in Mon Oncle, sending up the consumerist culture of post-war France while offering hope in one playful, eccentric man this world isn’t as superficial, self-centred, or tangled as it seems.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Whenever some force of political cynicism comes along to threaten the sweet innocence of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Jacques Tati may bite back with good humour, but his focus never strays from the sweet, childlike love of beaches, dress-up parties, ice cream, fire crackers, and summer vacations, effectively turning his film into the cinematic equivalent of a postcard.

Jour de Fête (1949)

Though Jour de Fête feels slightly limited without Jacques Tati’s bizarre displays of architecture to bounce his physical comedy off, he is still as resourceful as ever in both his acting and direction, whimsically sending up modern ideals of efficiency and progress when they begin to invade a tiny French village amid Bastille Day celebrations.

Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Souls of Strangers

Director Archives

YearFilmGrade
1976The ScarR
1979Camera BuffR
1981Blind ChanceR
1985No EndR
1988A Short Film About LoveHR
1988A Short Film About KillingMP
1989DekalogMP
1991The Double Life of VeroniqueMP
1993Three Colours: BlueMP
1994Three Colours: WhiteMS
1994Three Colours: RedMP
A red billboard, red car, red traffic light – you can’t talk about the use of colour in film without mentioning Three Colours: Red.

Best Film

The Double Life of Veronique. It is tight competition between all four of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s top-rated films though. The Dekalog may be the more traditional choice given its ambitious scale, but this is a more thoroughly consistent film from start to finish in its gorgeous visual style. It is a formal triumph of complex characterisations as well, binding together a pair of nearly identical women living thousands of miles away from each other who have never met, but who possess shared traits which might suggest some metaphysical connection between the two. Irène Jacob plays both with a deep sensitivity, prone to blissful elation in musical sequences and profoundly affected by the tiniest shifts in Kieslowski’s bewildering cosmos. Everything between them is mirrored in some aspect, edging us towards an emotional understanding of humanity’s interconnectedness without ever fully letting us in on its mystical secrets.

The Double Life of Veronique marks a great achievement in mise-en-scène for Kieslowski, weaving red decor through scenes shot with yellow and green filters, but it might also be his most formally complex work in its quiet mysticism.

Most Overrated

Nothing. Everything from Kieslowski is either well-rated on the TSPDT list or underrated. Given the formal complexity of much of his work, it is naturally more likely that audiences will miss his genius rather than overestimate it.

No End is a heavy, sombre film contemplating the introduction of martial law in Poland, and paralleling that with one woman’s grief over her deceased husband. It also marks an important transition for Kieslowski from social realism into spiritual, philosophical cinema.

Most Underrated

A Short Film About Killing. This currently sits at #8 of 1988, which is a significant miss from the critical consensus. It deserves to be in the top 3 (along with Distant Voices, Still Lives and Dead Ringers), if not sitting at number 1. It was also the first theatrical cut of a Dekalog episode, so my guess is that many critics are divided over whether they should consider it as part of the series or on its own. My vote obviously goes to the latter. It is not just a highpoint of the series, but of Kieslowski’s entire career, delivering a punishing treatise on the injustice of the death penalty through a sickly, jaundiced filter. This vision of Warsaw is a barren wasteland of corruption, and that seeps all through Kieslowski’s grotesque photography and methodical staging.

Perhaps Kieslowski’s greatest accomplishment in style, filtering a pair of senseless murders through a sickly, yellow haze and crafting endlessly creative frames in A Short Film About Killing.

Gem to Spotlight

Dekalog. The cinematic launchpad for the rest of Kieslowski’s great career can’t be overlooked. Few television series have reached this level of artistic accomplishment, as Kieslowski dedicates each of its individual episodes to one of the Ten Commandments, crafting an epic drama around a set of strangers living in a single Warsaw apartment complex. We are gifted an omniscient perspective into their stories, each one of which possesses its own distinct style while being bound together by a series of common motifs. Kieslowski’s characteristic use of iconography and cutaways also lend spiritual significance to these characters’ journeys, wrestling with complex moral dilemmas that attempt to reconcile traditional moral imperatives with modern cultural values.

One of the single greatest frames from the Dekalog, watching a man through the apartment building entrance and silhouetted against the rain. The use of glass as a lens through which we can observe the world would later become a key stylistic feature of The Double Life of Veronique.

Ranking

  1. The Double Life of Veronique
  2. A Short Film About Killing
  3. Dekalog
  4. Three Colours: Red
  5. Three Colours: Blue
  6. Three Colours: White
  7. A Short Film About Love
  8. Blind Chance
  9. No End
  10. Camera Buff
  11. The Scar
A gorgeous composition to open The Scar, using forest trees to divide the frame into segments and split up the labourers.

Cultural Context and Artistic Innovations

Targeting Polish Politics

As a film student with ambitions in the realm of political art, Kieslowski began his career making both short and feature-length documentaries, travelling Poland to research and shoot the day-to-day lives of labourers, soldiers, and city people. After recording interviews with workers protesting against food shortages, he quickly found himself being heavily censored by Polish Communist authorities, though this only incensed him further and pushed him to branch out into narrative filmmaking.

His non-documentary debut, Personnel, was broadcast on television and stuck a chord at the Mannheim Film Festival, winning him first prize. It wasn’t until The Scar though that he was able to combine his intelligent political voice with artistic potency, setting him up as an important figure in the realm of social realism. Through his following films he developed a didactic and pointed cinematic style, targeting specific areas of Polish culture and politics unique to the time period such as the introduction of martial law, all the while continuing to wrestle with censors. Blind Chance was hit particularly hard with its release being delayed by authorities for six years, and not being seen by the public until 1987. Even today, there is still a single scene depicting the police beating up a citizen that has not been fully recovered.

Across the late 70s and mid 80s, Kieslowski continued dropping in pieces of conceptual philosophy and surrealism. There was already a hint of it in the sparse, ethereal score of The Scar, but in the parallel timelines of Blind Chance and the ghostly manifestations of No End, it became clear that he was starting to head in more metaphysical directions. Of course, this would all foreshadow the complete departure from politics in his later career, and a submission to personal, spiritual questions.

Kieslowski’s camera in Blind Chance rushes along the platform with our young protagonist at a key turning point in his life, right before the narrative splits off into three different timelines.
A Television Breakthrough

While Kieslowski was beginning work on his most ambitious project yet, the Dekalog series, he was asked by his producers to expand two of its episodes into feature-length films to make for easier international distribution, thus giving us A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love.

These films were released in 1988, a year before the Dekalog would make its television debut, and both marked a dramatic step up in artistic quality from his previous films, individually developing colour palettes that are formally tied to their narratives. This would go on to be an identifying characteristic of Kieslowski’s later work, even becoming the stylistic basis of his Three Colours trilogy in the 1990s. Here though, it was A Short Film About Killing which especially leapt out for its harsh depiction of Warsaw as a dystopian hellhole, laying vignettes over sepia images of social decay and violent murder, and making a powerful statement against the death penalty.

The arrival of the Dekalog series in 1989 only cemented the genius that took over film festivals the previous year. Inspired by a 15th century artwork that depicted the Ten Commandments in scenes from that period, Kieslowski strived to make a modern cinematic equivalent within the social and political context of late-Communist era Poland. This wasn’t just the start of his interest in God-like, omniscient perspectives that study the hidden interconnections between unassuming strangers. This was also the beginning of his commitment to long-form cinema, structuring series around cultural ideals whether they be religious imperatives or the colours of the French flag.

Red production design soaking A Short Film About Love in a passionate ardour, foreshadowing a similar (and stronger) stylistic choice a few years later in Three Colours: Red.
Questions of Faith and Philosophy

By the 1990s, Kieslowski was well and truly on a roll, delivering masterpiece after masterpiece. Despite being the only standalone film from the latter half of his career, The Double Life of Veronique stands as one of his finest cinematic accomplishments, displaying all of his most recognisable stylistic trademarks that would continue to be represented in his subsequent Three Colours trilogy. The use of glass to reflect and distort images is particularly characteristic of Kieslowski, gazing through orbs, lenses, and windows to empathetically consider alternate perspectives. It has a distancing effect as well though, as if to suggest we can never truly cross that barrier into other people’s lives.

In The Double Life of Veronique, Kieslowski frequently combines those glass shots with his cutaways, another distinguishing feature of his that stretches even further back to his earlier films. A dissolving sugar cube, a pair of grasped hands, a cracked glass of beer – these tiny, delicate representations of larger ideas offer deeper meanings to his stories and characters, stepping beyond the immediate plot to examine the ways human experiences are reflected in the micro-details of their surroundings. They also practically break up the flow of Kieslowski’s narrative, taking the time to retune our sensitivity and perspective, before letting us re-join our characters.

Powerful cutaways to tiny symbols reflecting our characters’ emotional journeys, here paired with one of Kieslowski’s greatest use of glass to refract a shot.

It is worth noting the yellow and green hues that hang in the air in The Double Life of Veronique, but the colour palettes which permeate the Three Colours trilogy go without saying. In representing the French flag as a film series, Kieslowski is able to take the time to examine philosophical applications of its national values – liberty, equality, and fraternity. Red in particular stands out as being most in line with his previous metaphysical fascinations as laid out in Blind Chance, the Dekalog, and The Double Life of Veronique, studying the passing connections between strangers and the alternate lives we could have lived were it not some twist of fate or divine intervention. Much like the ending of Blind Chance, the conclusion of Red sees Kieslowski gather a small ensemble of characters we have been following but who are unknown to our main protagonist, uniting the Three Colours trilogy within a single scene.

It was at the premiere of Red at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival that Kieslowski announced his retirement from film, claiming his belief that literature could achieve greater things than cinema. Evidently there was a change of heart at some point, as he began to work on a new trilogy with films based on the concepts of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Though he had finished writing them, he passed away in 1996 from a heart attack, and two of the three screenplays were later adapted by other filmmakers.

A gentle azure palette infused with the photography in Three Colours: Blue, diffused through the soft natural light.

Frequent Collaborators

CollaboratorRoleNumber of Films
Krzysztof PiesiewiczWriter8
Zbigniew PreisnerComposer8
Jerzy StuhrActor5
Artur BarciśActor4
Aleksander BardiniActor4
Slawomir IdziakCinematographer4
Grażyna SzapołowskaActor3
Jacques WittaEditor3
Irène JacobActor2
Bogusław LindaActor2
Maria PakulnisActor2
Zbigniew ZamachowskiActor2
Janusz GajosActor2
Piotr SobocinskiCinematographer2

Reviews

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski lays heavily into the dramatic irony of his characters’ hidden interconnections in Three Colours: Red, saturating his beautiful mise-en-scene with a fiery warmth that unites neighbouring strangers in an invisible fraternity, their intertwining paths governed only by the irrational whims of chance.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s dazzlingly light tones seek to visually restore neutrality and balance where neither can be found in Three Colours: White, lending a soft edge to the vaguely comical sensibilities of one man’s attempt to claw his way back up the ranks of society and pursue justice against his ex-wife.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

The rich azure palette that pervades Three Colours: Blue in every shade imaginable beautifully sinks the film into a deep melancholy, as Krzysztof Kieslowski examines one young widow’s attempt to find emotional liberty from the ghosts of past traumas which continue to haunt her musically and psychologically.

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

The mystical coincidences that bind French music teacher Véronique and Polish choir soprano Weronika together in a causal relationship are elusive in their formal complexities, as Krzysztof Kieslowski edges us towards an emotional understanding of humanity’s interconnectedness in The Double Life of Veronique without ever fully letting us in on its magnificently abstract secrets.

Dekalog (1989)

For all its authentic grounding in the culture of 1980s Poland, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog remains a mystical piece of theological cinema for its complex examination of the Ten Commandments in a series of contemporary moral fables, collectively provoking deep contemplation through an omniscient perspective akin to that of an all-seeing God.

A Short Film About Killing (1988)

The vision of Warsaw that Krzysztof Kieslowski presents in A Short Film About Killing is a barren wasteland of mud and shadows, strained through a sickly, jaundiced filter that unnervingly reveals the truly grotesque horror in justifying the malevolent destruction of human life.

A Short Film About Love (1988)

The Hitchcockian setup of an obsessive voyeur with a telescope in A Short Film About Love is very familiar, but in place of a suspenseful mystery Krzysztof Kieslowski instead absorbs us in a compelling morality play concerning two opposed yet twisted perceptions of love – the romanticisation of one-sided affection, and the complete denial of its existence.

No End (1985)

Four days on from the passing of Polish lawyer Antek in No End, his ghost still haunts his widowed wife and final client, forming the metaphorical basis of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s solemn eulogy for a defeated political movement that spiritually unites its mourners, and whose death carries demoralising implications across multiple levels of society.

Blind Chance (1981)

As one man runs towards his departing train in Blind Chance, Krzysztof Kieslowski splits his life into three separate timelines that send him down conflicting paths, thoughtfully probing metaphysical questions of fate and regret while exposing the flimsiness of political conformity in 1980s Poland.

Camera Buff (1979)

Polish factory worker Filip first picks up his camera to film the birth of his daughter, but as he grows more ambitious throughout Camera Buff, Krzysztof Kieslowski turns his tale into one of calloused obsession and denial, seeing the aspiring documentarian point his lens at everyone but himself in an effort to avoid examining his own shortcomings.

The Scar (1976)

Relative to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s great masterpieces of the 80s and 90s, The Scar is a modest piece of social realism, grounded in the details of Communist Poland’s bureaucracy and its controversial small-town development of a chemical factory that challenges one sympathetic Party member’s hopeful ideals.

Jia Zhangke: Landscapes of Lost China

Director Archives

YearFilmGrade
1997Xiao WuR/HR
2000PlatformMS
2002Unknown PleasuresR
2004The WorldHR
2006Still LifeMS
200824 CityUnrated (Documentary)
2013A Touch of SinR
2015Mountains May DepartR
2018Ash is Purest WhiteHR
Unknown Pleasures, Jia Zhangke’s follow-up to Platform, doesn’t reach the same level as his previous films but still establishes his voice in the realm of social realism.

Best Film

Platform. Jia Zhangke’s follow-up to his promising debut, Xiao Wu, is sprawling and ambitious filmmaking. State performers searching for direction in the wake of China’s Cultural Revolution unfolds slowly and deliberately over ten years, taking an emphasis off plot and onto these wandering, disillusioned young characters. On top of that, Jia is following in the footsteps of Michelangelo Antonioni in his use of architecture, underscoring the emotional depth of his subtle drama. A defining piece of realism for the 21st century.

Clearly an Antonioni acolyte in his profound sense of architectural style, and a formal master in the recurring use of these wide shots throughout Platform.

Most Overrated

Still Life. This isn’t outrageous though. TSPDT has it at #4 of its year and I would only be a few spots lower. There isn’t much to criticise here in this film – it is still Jia’s second best after Platform and reveals a new direction in his formal approach to structuring narratives into three-pronged segments.

A crumbling city in Still Life standing for Chinese culture at large, erasing the old to make way for progress. The way this is painted out in the contrast of foregrounds and backgrounds is especially affecting.

Most Underrated

Ash is Purest White. Sitting at #21 of 2018 is bizarre. If it doesn’t belong in the top 10, it should at least be on the outskirts. It is a formal triumph of structure and production design, set over many years to study the moulding of feminine strength in the fiery heat of adversity.

Use of natural land masses to inform character – stunning compositions.

Gem to Spotlight

The World. Jia’s first step beyond the boundaries of strict realism, but only barely. The image of tourists and theme park workers towering over shrunken replicas of world monuments is surreal, and makes an acute statement on the cheapening effect of globalisation on human achievement.

Rigid structures and patterns all through Jia’s mise-en-scène here as characters gaze up at the passing plane and dream of flying away.

Ranking

  1. Platform
  2. Still Life
  3. Ash is Purest White
  4. The World
  5. Xiao Wu
  6. A Touch of Sin
  7. Unknown Pleasures
  8. Mountains May Depart
This pagoda is a deliberate formal choice all through Mountains May Depart, recurring in the background right up until this wonderful final shot.

Cultural Context and Artistic Innovations

An Underground Movement

With increased censorship policies rising in China in the 1990s, there was a growing disillusionment with those state-funded films that neglected to depict the authentic lives and struggles of people as they actually were. The Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers thus came about as an underground movement led by Jia Zhangke, committed to raw realism – handheld cameras, location shooting, non-professional actors, all calling back to the Italian neorealists of the 1940s and 50s.

Debut and Breakthrough

Jia started his career at Beijing Film Academy where he made three short films, experimenting with documentary and narrative cinema. It was also there that he began work on his feature debut, Xiao Wu, set and filmed in 1997 during the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong. The time period and political landscape is marked with loud, public announcements declaring crackdowns on petty crime, threatening the welfare of the titular pickpocket.

It was ultimately Platform though, his follow-up effort, which made Jia an internationally renowned arthouse director, as he shifted his focus back to the 1980s to observe the gradual social changes in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. Jia’s frequent camera pans soak in the detail of dirtied interiors and rundown streets in both films, shooting in long takes that refuse to hurry the characters and stories along.

An impressive debut from a young auteur, hitting the streets of China with 16mm film stock to capture a biting piece of realism in conversation with contemporaneous political affairs.
Pushing the Boundaries of Realism

Politics and globalisation have always remained at least in the background of all of Jia’s films, but while his earliest films might draw comparisons to Robert Rossellini in their authentic representations of Chinese workers, criminals, and slackers going about everyday life, it was about the mid-2000s that Jia began to throw in traces of fantasy. The final minutes of The World conclude with a pair of voiceovers seemingly playing out the thoughts of two dead bodies, and Still Life digs even deeper into such surreal allusions by using its hints at an extra-terrestrial invasion as metaphors for the destruction of an ancient Chinese village.

In 24 City, displaced workers and families who were previously involved in a once-standing airplane engine manufacturing facility now find themselves wrestling with a changing infrastructural and social landscape as it is demolished to make way for a complex of luxury apartments. Again, the grounding of realism is challenged in this experimental documentary that blends authentic and scripted stories, refusing to note the difference between the two.

Experimenting With Structure

As the 2010s arrive, Jia followed up on the formally segmented structure of Still Life with an anthology film in A Touch of Sin. In Mountains May Depart and Ash is Purest White, he similarly delivers a pair of of three-pronged narratives set across three different eras of Chinese culture. Even here though, there still remains a consistency in the significant Michelangelo Antonioni influence on his use of architecture and landforms to define characters, whether he is painting out a hardened spirit with a mountainous green volcano in Ash is Purest White or collapsing buildings around a man searching for stability in Still Life.

Jia is still active in the world of Chinese cinema, having recently made the short film Visit contemplating the COVID-19 pandemic, however there is no current news regarding his direction on future films.

A Touch of Sin, Jia’s bloodiest film to date, studying the inevitable bursts of violence that result from constant abuse of the working class.

Frequent Collaborators

CollaboratorRoleNumber of Films
Zhao TaoActor8
Yu Lik-waiCinematographer8
Wong Hon-weiActor5
Lim GiongComposer5
Kong JingleiEditor4
Liang JingdongActor3
Matthieu LaclauEditor3
Lin XudonEditor3
Yoshihiro HannoComposer3

Reviews

Ash is Purest White (2018)

Through Jia Zhangke’s interweaved motifs of colours and landforms in Ash is Purest White, he creates an epic character study of feminine strength, and its moulding in the fiery heat of adversity.

Mountains May Depart (2015)

Mountains May Depart marks Jia Zhangke’s most significant withdrawal from his distinctive, neorealist style, and although the film is a little weaker for it, he still finds a deep poignancy in the widening generation gap separating China’s past from its future.

A Touch of Sin (2013)

Four loosely connected episodes of violence based on real Chinese news stories come together in a Touch of Sin to sketch out a landscape of anger and frustration, as Jia Zhangke pushes the boundaries of his usual neo-realistic style until they start to overlap with traditional crime thriller conventions.

24 City (2008)

Jia Zhangke remains as engaged in the globalisation of industrial China as ever with his foray into documentary filmmaking, as 24 City’s experimental blend of authentic and scripted interviews suggest a shift into an uncertain, postmodern future where luxurious, high-rise apartments displace tight-knit working communities. 

Still Life (2006)

Through the violent demolition of an ancient Chinese village in Still Life, Jia Zhangke brings about an apocalyptic vision of modernity and globalisation, pushing the boundaries of neorealism with an eerie edge of science-fiction imagery.

The World (2004)

There is a beautiful, architectural surrealism to the miniature replicas of world-famous monuments that feature in The World, as the theme park where Jia Zhangke sets his film shrinks these landmarks down to a size that makes both tourists and staff look like giants, and simultaneously criticises a globalised Chinese culture that allows for such a cheapening of art and culture.

Unknown Pleasures (2002)

While Jia Zhangke grounds Unknown Pleasures in a grim reality dominated by derelict architecture and television sets, his young adult characters try to find some comfort in the philosophy to “do what feels good”, even if these ancient words are little more than a despairing assertion of meek independence in the face of a constrained, globalised Chinese culture.

Platform (2000)

Though we can appreciate the immediate impact of Jia Zhangke’s stark, minimalistic aesthetics in painting out a social landscape in decline, the formally ambitious construction of China over a ten-year span reveals an accumulation of small changes set in motion by an increasingly globalising culture, slowly eroding the value of art, tradition, and relationships.

Xiao Wu (1997)

Taking rich inspiration from the Italian neorealists who preceded him by roughly fifty years, Jia Zhangke turns his camera to the streets of a provincial Chinese town during a particularly harsh crackdown on crime, tracking pickpocket Xiao Wu through a shifting culture that he no longer recognises.