Though distinct, the great modern poets of the cinema -- most of them from Asia -- tend to make films around the same ideas. Hou Hsaio-hsien makes observations about humanity through his focus on his country's turbulent history, while Apichatpong Weerasethakul does the opposite. Tsai Ming-liang and Wong Kar-wai focus not on the past but the present and projected future, Tsai in sociopolitical concern, Wong in Romantic uncertainty and fatalistic optimism. In Iran, Abbas Kiarostami couches his own humanism in the sweeping expanse of nature, the beaten dirt roads his characters always drive the most visible display of humanity in his pastoral canvases. Meanwhile, Edward Yang, rest his soul, used casts that could blot out his gorgeous Taiwanese settings and made the personality that much more visceral.
What links them most strongly, however, is the ontological preoccupations of their films. Cinema is the art form best suited to ontology, its ability to mimic reality to cater to more senses than any other art thus allowing it to screw with our perceptions more easily. Kiarostami is the reigning monarch in this regard, his blend of fiction and reality more tantalizing, unique and meaningful even than Herzog's experiments. And as I argued for his short film, Phantoms of Nabua, Weerasethakul can use his graceful movement to slip back and forth over various planes of being, embodying visual metaphors and seeing them through to the other side rather than leave them untouched as clues to be decoded by those who think guessing what a symbol means thus unlocks the emotional weight of an object.
Jia Zhangke seems to embody something of all of them. He has Hou's meticulous accuracy and glacial pacing with Weerasethakul's temporal ambiguity, Kiarostami's gift for space, Yang's gift for spacing out dense casts and Tsai's apprehension about changing times. He even has Wong's aching soul for missed opportunities, even if he doesn't capture the lost moments with the same visceral savagery that Wong used to flay your heart in tatters. Platform, Jia's second full-length feature, does not share the same open blend of documentary and fiction as his later films starting with Still Life, nor even does it rely on the cheeky reflexivity of The World's setting and devices. Yet it is the most ontologically complex of his features to date, questioning the state of being for people without a cultural identity.
Naturally, this story simply must be set in China. Were Jia an American, he would have had no other choice but to set the film in China. No other country, not even the United States with its incessant attempts to never ever look to the past, has a looser hold on its culture than China. Its vast size and wide range of geographies divide the country in greater extremes than the continental United States, and the use of various local dialects in Platform emphasize the lingual gaps among provinces.
More than that, however, the practices of the Maoist government have wrenched the Chinese population from identifiable ethnic trademarks. Mao himself believed in constant revolution, the embodiment of the Jeffersonian ideal of replenishing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants. As such, the people of China, especially the rural farmers that still make up 40 percent of the workforce today, are disconnected from a linking identity. Mao may have led the closest thing to a people's revolt, but the various social upheavals since that time have placed all the ethnic trademarks of China into the museums, where artifacts do not show where modern culture evolved from but imprison that culture within walls. Jia's film is set during the '80s, before these museums and China's history became little more than a tourist industry, but the rise of capitalism is unmistakable.
Platform opens in 1979 as a state-funded theater troupe heads to a small provincial theater to sing propaganda songs eulogizing Chairman Mao. They sing of all the great advances made by Mao, yet when they get in their truck to head to the next village, the director chastises one of the actors for making an odd train sound, to which the poor soul responds that he's never seen a train before. Others in the troupe haven't either, but they've at least heard the whistle. Clearly, the people sent to spread the word of Mao's accomplishments have never experienced them firsthand; most of the actors came from the same farm hamlets where they now travel.
Caught between worlds, the actors have no real home. Cui Ming-liang (Wang Hongwei) shows up on his farm wearing bell-bottoms and immediately receives derision for them. His mother, busying sewing her own clothes, says that the cuffs are so big he could sweep streets with them, while another farmer asks if he can do any heavy lifting in the slim pants. Cui refers to himself as an 'artworker,' not an artist, and that's an accurate description: he doesn't have the liberty of performing anything he loves but is instead instructed to sing homilies to Chairman Mao. Still, he does not have to engage in the sort of manual labor that his family have performed for generations. He may not enjoy full artistic expression in his lifetime, but he's better off.
That is one of the positive sides of changing life that Jia notes, but the uncertainty and isolation that comes with being caught in the middle lends itself far more to more somber feelings. Rural workers mock the actors and only a few spectators ever stop to watch the troupe, yet one miner, the father of a dancer, quietly pulls the director aside when they visit and relays a message that his daughter should go to university and never return to this hard life. Everyone's trapped in an existential quandary because of the collective's emphasis on shared labor. A farmer must be a farmer not only for himself but for the good of the whole. So, the farmer and the miner tease their children for trying to rise above their station because all the know is their work, yet they secretly pray for their children to break free. The discrepancy between outer and inner personality is less a display of hypocrisy than the clearest display of the cultural disconnect of farmers who have not even fully moved past their feudal roots and are now facing the second great upheaval of their lives.
As he is making a film about generational and social change, Jia would have invited comparisons to Ozu Yasujiro whether he wanted to or not, yet he clearly took a page or two from the master. By comparison, the titling of one section of The World "Tokyo Story" and the inversion of that masterpiece seems but a pop culture reference. Jia shoots Platform in long, static takes at medium height. Each scene is precisely blocked, yet the actors, not the camera, do the movement. Like Ozu, Jia somehow arranges these actors to behave and move in such a way that the characters are given a human believability and spontaneity but the blocking never loses its compositional power and its metaphorical suggestion.
Cui routinely meets with his girlfriend, Ruijuan (Zhao Tao), in an abandoned fortress from one of China's great dynasties, and each meeting shows them drifting further apart, the empty space in the frame between them magnifying as the edges close in and trap them. In one scene, the mise-en-scène traps the two between a wall and a building, and one character disappears behind the wall on the left as the other moves out into visibility against the right fortification. The physical separation reflects the emotional isolation, and finally it depicts the full severing of ties when they break up. Jia handles the break-up with a subtlety that goes beyond the characters: Ruijuan insists she's the one who decided they don't make a good pair (something with which Ming-liang agrees), yet she mentions more than once her father's disapproval, and she says she must return home to care for the ailing man. At that moment, the seeming liberation of both Communism and the subsequent rise of capitalism that gives Ruijuan the freedom to reject her lover as her own person is undercut by classical Confucianism with its ideas of filial piety. It is Cui who gets to leaves the cramped frame by climbing out of it via a stairwell, but the camera stays with the woman as she waits for her ride home, and suddenly Jia frames her from above and farther away, stressing that, while they all feel a loneliness, women are even more isolated by these incessant changes.
The same is true for Zhong Ping, Ruijuan's friend and the girlfriend of Cui's buddy Zhang Jun. She gets a perm that attracts a great deal of attention from everyone, but when she tries to have a conversation with her equally Westernized lover on the streets, they're interrupted by a group of men marching through town chanting, "Long live birth control! One child's enough!" Later, Zhong Ping must abort Jun's baby, and authorities arrest the man because they're not married. Even with a state mandate for population control, women can still be shamed for being "sluts," and we get a brief glimpse of the horrible truth of life for a Chinese woman, in which both extremes are allowed to dictate what one does with her body. Eventually, she suffers a breakdown and leaves, and her desperate, inchoate rage can be seen as the result of not having the excuse to go home that Ruijuan had. Ruijuan may be returning to feudal servitude, but at least she finally has an identity. For poor Zhong Ping, whatever she tries to be will be considered wrong.
In this way, Jia explores the idea of identity and existence without ever relying on the self-reflexivity that marks ontologically curious cinema, even Jia's own filmography. By separating these people from each other on physical, lingual and socioeconomic levels, Jia asks who they really are and makes that question unanswerable even though he strips them to their essences. And when the state-controlled troupe begins to privatize and learn songs praising Deng Xiaoping's anti-Maoist, pro-Western reforms, what does the group mean anymore? Already they changed China's historical identity through their propaganda songs, and by turning into a pop outfit, they build on the sandy foundation of their fabrication. By rejecting the West, China ultimately came to match the identity of the United States, which has also tried to outrun its past: both Communist China and capitalist America, after all, would describe themselves as states for, by and of the people, and they'd both be somewhat justified despite their opposite focus on collectivism and individualism, respectively. Looking back from the present, we know China's efforts to globalize will successfully turn them into a world economic power, the world economic power, likely, once the dust of this recession settles, but at what cost? The Chinese may emerge triumphant, but as can be seen in these characters, they'll be so bewildered by the shifts that they won't even know they've won.
Most ingeniously, Jia uses sound to compound these questions of being. The troupe director yells at the man for not knowing the sound of a train, but when that whistle blares in the countryside later, the troupe knows what it is and runs for it, not simply to get to the next point but because it comes to symbolize freedom before anyone ever sees a train. Even those who have seen one think of a whistle or the chugging of an engine when the word is said, so can the physicality of the train be defined by its aural properties? Or its symbolic ones when you consider that the provinces the troupe travels are landlocked and separated by geographic and cultural barriers, even if they're all linked by the same sense of fatalistic inevitability that rolls through the streets like a tumbleweed. When Ruijuan says she must care for her father, Jia plays the sound of soldiers marching in the background, emphasizing the prison-like structure of both the mangled social system that can impose old rules even as it comes up with new oppressions as well as the crushing mise-en-scène.
Time moves imperceptibly in Platform, the only appreciable difference being the type of music the troupe performs. They start as the Peasant Culture Group of Fenyang and end the privatized All-Stars Rock 'n' Breakdance Electronic Band. In a way, they're playing a large game of Telephone (or, if you'll permit me, Chinese Whispers): tasked with delivering the joyous news of Mao's great accomplishments, they wind up singing pop after a decade on the road, completely disconnected from the original intent, which was itself a means to subvert and distort reality in a lazy attempt by the state to maintain rural obedience. Naturally, the troupe thus serves as a microcosm for China itself, pushed into acting like Mao's reign was a godsend before finally devolving into an "every man for himself" push for goals that are neither fully articulated nor understood. Consumerism won't bring happiness any more than Maoism did; it'll just create new ways for people to feel alone.
Beyond the message or any intellectual pursuit, however, the passage of time speaks more to a universal feeling among humans, of time moving at a glacial pace until you finally reach out to seize a moment, at which point it instantly slips through your fingers. "We are waiting, our whole hearts are waiting forever," read some lyrics to the song that gives the film its title, and it's that waiting that causes the most heartbreak. Only when the moment's passed do we realize we should have acted. We can spot the opportunities for Ming-liang and Ruijuan to reconcile and stop pushing the other away to chase some specter of perceived happiness, but could we spot such chances in our own lives? At times like these, Platform becomes more than a critique about the accelerated change in Chinese culture, albeit a sophisticated and meditative one. It becomes a film about life, as insightful and moving as Yi Yi. And who couldn't love the scene late in the film that shows Ruijuan, returned to Fenyang and working as a tax collector in an office that is as nebulously Communist/capitalist as anything in China, dancing to the radio? Zhao perfectly sells the moment, perking up when she hears the music and beginning to sway, stopping when she remembers that she left that life behind, and finally throwing caution to the wind and twirling in the dark, empty office.
Platform is an epic in length and thematic scope, but its execution and mise-en-scène roots the action in personal terms. The unwavering distance of Jia's camera suggests a critical objectivity, and that's certainly true, but only for the social concerns. When he strips away the commentary, he unleashes a wave of emotion. Nowhere is this more evident than the ending, in which the sound of a whistling kettle is matched with the deafening roar of a train, magnified to the point of discomfort. In that moment, we finally get inside these characters' heads, and we understand how overpowering the impulse to escape is. One day, China's globalization would replace trains with airplanes and text messages (as Jia would later show in The World), but they all represent the same thing: the possibility for an escape that never comes. Somehow, Jia Zhangke can build a two-and-a-half-hour underground film to this final message and not give in to despair. And until I figure out how the hell he can pull that off, I'll keep studying him. Fortunately for me, Jia makes this task so damn appealing.