In my experience, watching a Jia Zhangke film is quite unlike watching any other filmmaker. With Platform (2000), The World (2004), and now Unknown Pleasures (actually released between the two), I see him in his own niche, somewhere definitely narrative but nonetheless containing a documentarian look and feel. They are intensely sociopolitical, and their neorealist style reflects that. Very little happens in plot and, in the case of Unknown Pleasures, even character growth, but there is an attentiveness to the mise-en-scene that recalls the work of the filmmakers heralded by Andre Bazin.
Unknown Pleasures is not as thematically rich as The World, but it is not as difficult as Platform, either. Jia has said that he made the film to examine the “birth control generation,” the first children to emerge from China’s One-child policy. What comes along is an examination of loneliness and isolation, and also of the influence of American culture on the Chinese youth with unprecedented access to American media. Indeed, much of the film is about the influence of American movies on two best friends, Bin Bin (Zhao Weiwei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) who are lazy and aimless even in their pursuit of women. Bin Bin has a girlfriend, but while she is focused on her exams and thinking about what to study at university, he is content to watch TV. Xiao Ji does even less, following around a singer/dancer named Qiao Qiao but refusing to talk to her.
The two are endlessly passive, and the only thing that drives the story forward is Xiao Ji being asked out by Qiao Qiao and Bin Bin being encouraged to join the military by his mother. What you do see unfolding in the characters’ lives, however, appears promising. There are numerous references to the economy, and it is implied that both have either had jobs or are unable to find them; the only opportunity for employment and ambition is to leave their small town of Datong for the big city of Beijing. Bin Bin’s girlfriend, the only ambitious person in the film, wants to go there to study, and Datong is enthusiastic upon learning that Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics.
That Beijing is the dream world while Datong is a dungeon with no exit is clear enough, but Jia’s agenda is not one of explanation or solution. The disparity between the two cities is something that is said to us but never proven. That we cannot see Beijing makes the claim much harder to buy, and that Jia chooses to focus on the individuals who lack the motivation to do anything about it removes any kind of power or exploration from this theme. It’s simply present, and its separation from propaganda is only in the elegance and subtlety with which it is told. Jia’s composition is not strong enough to convince us, so the point fizzles away without leaving any kind of a mark. Keeping the dream world in the minds of the characters strengthens the depiction of this generation of youth, but in a film with so little concern for character development, the minute details of their longing for a big city and disenchantment with home is contradicted by their passivity and laziness. When Xiao remarks that if he “lived in a rich place, like America, I’d rob a bank,” the small-town woes are piled on, but the continual “if only” hypotheses are too pathetic to resonate and the characters who make them are too shallow to be tragic.
On the other hand, their pitifulness points a finger at the influence of media, and this theme comes through, unlike the big city dream, gradually, gracefully, with far more show than tell. A fondness for TV becomes an obsession with American movies; a longing for such a culture eventually becomes actions rooted in delusion. There is a great scene when Qiao Qiao takes Xiao Ji out to lunch and he references Pulp Fiction that brings a much needed energy to the picture, and it sets into motion much of what comes later. We see the beginning of Xiao Ji’s illusion, and his relatively active pursuit of somebody else’s dreams is far more convincing than the postulated contrast between small towns and big cities.
Jia’s portrayal is not interested in insight. The film’s ultra-realist style is a reflection of its characters’ ennui so exact that the film itself begins to feel overly long and even reductive. How many drawn out scenes of Xiao Ji on a broken-down motorcycle do we need to understand it as a symbol of a prolonged but eventually defunct dream of escape? The only suggested contributors to the unambitious life and the deluded dreams are media and America. It’s a very simple, somewhat appalling message that borders on anti-globalism but lacks enough conviction to really be offensive. There are a few great scenes that capitalize on promises, but in the end, those promises are broken, those great scenes saviors instead of heroes.