In the closing scene of Jia Zhangke’s 2000 film Platform, main character Cui Mingliang lays sprawled across a chair in a cramped Fenyang apartment. His wife stands near the open door, holding his child and cooking. Visible through the apartment’s open door are the ancient, feudal walls of Fenyang. The image is little brighter than the closing scene of Jia’s 1997 film Pickpocket, where Xiao Wu (played by the same actor, Wang Hongwei) crouches handcuffed to a cable in the middle of the street, awaiting an uncertain but likely strict punishment. The men of the two films are surpassed in their similarity only by the Fenyang of both pictures: a crumbling provincial backwater where one can grow up, like Cui Mingliang, without ever hearing a train.

What Jia Zhangke brought to Chinese cinema with Platform and Pickpocket is understood best in contrast to the Fifth Generation film-makers that put China on the map in the first place. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, in particular, tend to take an extreme distance from contemporary China, sometimes chronological and sometimes geographical, often both (see, for example, Chen’s Yellow Earth or Zhang’s Raise The Red Lantern). On rare occasions, they engage in a type of epic historical drama that explicitly traces the course of the tumultuous decades following the Communist Revolution, in a manner almost like Forest Gump (in this vein, see Zhang’s To Live and Chen’s Farewell My Concubine).

Jia Zhangke finds in Fenyang a political and cultural backwater, a synthesis of these two poles. The city isn’t particularly far from Beijing — a mere 375 miles — and thus isn’t an exotic cinematic destination like Tibet or Xinjiang. Neither is it close enough to Beijing to argue for its inclusion and importance as a kind of almost-Beijing, like Tianjin, a port city located half-an-hour’s train ride from the capital. Fenyang is notable only for its lack of notoriety, or perhaps for the local dialect Jia insists on using, a deliberate choice against the default tradition in Chinese cinema.

Fenyang’s underwhelming film presence isn’t an impression Jia allows, as he wants to upset elite Beijingers’ unfortunate preconceptions about the world outside the coastal metropoles. The inessential boringness of the world outside Beijing turns out to be entirely true, and that’s the whole point.

Jia’s Fenyang-set films’ important contribution is essentially the convincing thesis that everywhere not-Beijing and not-Shanghai remains dominated and even effaced, spiritually undermined, down to subterranean levels of self-identity, by pervasive ideas about “the urban dream” in China’s two biggest cities, by a consciousness that something promised is definitively not materializing.

At the close of Pickpocket, Xiao Wu walks along the main strip in Fenyang, where each building is marked for demolition and shopkeepers load their belongings into pick-up trucks. “You have to get rid of the old to build anything new,” one of the movers says. The shop owner responds, “But I don’t see anything new.” The “new” is a geographical privilege, concentrated on the coasts and in China’s booming metropoles. The “new” is a feature of the stage, on which China becomes a global superpower, and a stage on which Beijing and Shanghai are the leading players, not only to the West but to the rest of China and, especially, to Fenyang.

This is exactly why Platform and Pickpocket, like their characters, never manage to make it very far out of Fenyang. They’re inundated with government announcements about the imminent return of Hong Kong to Mainland control, crime crackdowns, and the weather in Ulan Bator or Beijing. Fenyang’s massive wall is always filmed from the inside, with Jia’s characters mounted on its sprawling ramparts thinking only of the outside but always trapped. The only signals that arrive from the “outside” are virtual hopes, television programs and radio broadcasts from the stage of China’s political and cultural centers — there are no broadcasts coming from within Fenyang, which languishes in the Beijing-adjacent, and gives the lie to the glittery and performative rise of Beijing and Shanghai, which are broadcast globally.

The viewer never acclimates to Jia’s insistence on the Fenyang dialect, because the film constantly draws attention to his choice. The officially mandated Mandarin hangs over the city in the form of the same radio broadcasts and official announcements. There are of course imperfect Western parallels; imagine if a BBC anchor (trained in “received pronunciation”) began a spot about India’s latest election in an unmistakable Southern American, swamp-inflected twang.

You get the sense that history, the city, and the “new” that Fenyang’s population eagerly awaits cannot happen in their local dialect. The alienation universally recognized in all of Jia’s work must be in some way tied to the unmistakable implication that a massive distance exists between his characters’ dialect and the ever-present standard Mandarin, broadcast from the center of the Middle Kingdom.

Like every film that begins with disaffected youth in a provincial backwater, Platform and Pickpocket are animated by the dream of the city, and the attendant dream of modernization. Usually in this kind of work, the disaffected youth evolve, as they are allowed some tantalizing and educational encounter with the city. The city is ceaselessly leveraged against wherever they started, against the old. In this case, Fenyang is both a city proper, and a metonym for its city walls. The former is comprised of crumbling brick-and-mortar alleyways, but the latter is as intact as ever. In Fenyang, the old does what old shit is supposed to do — it decays, and gets demolished. Everything except for the wall, which retains its utility as a symbolic obstacle to the outside. The new is nowhere to be found.

In Platform, that hope of escape is teased by a performance troupe’s forays beyond the wall. They escape Fenyang, for a time. The troupe is initially a Peasant Culture Group performing revolutionary songs with waning revolutionary zeal, and later reformed as a rock band performing Taiwanese pop hits. Each city they visit is another Fenyang. In one of the nameless provincial towns, they fail to receive permission from the local authorities to set up a stage in the town center. They find themselves instead parked next to the highway, where they perform on the back of a truck as traffic passes by without taking note. It is one of two scenes in which Jia makes his point unequivocal. In the other, the troupe camps on the steppe and sprints across the valley at the sight of their first freight train as it rumbles through the nothing. In both, any excitement is plainly derived from desperation.

Only two manage to escape Fenyang, one in each film. In Platform it’s Zhong Ping, a woman in the troupe who leaves town after an unwanted abortion and is never heard from again; in Pickpocket, it’s a prostitute befriended by main character Xiao Wu, who leaves him unannounced for a more economically-advantaged mate. We know this because she leaves in a car.

In the biographical documentary A Guy From Fenyang, Jia Zhangke told Brazilian director Walter Salles that “whether in Platform or The World, subconsciously I revealed my passion for the backstage.” He means it in a more limited thematic sense, but Jia and his films have been consumed with the backstage in a more general sense from the very beginning. Not only the literal backstage of performance, as in The World, but China’s backstage: Fenyang, and cities like it, that exist in a mode of cultural and political reception, orbiting the city. Places that, until Jia came along, might never have managed to see themselves on stage. 

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Not Just A Guy From Fenyang: Walter Salles’ Portrait of Master Filmmaker Jia Zhangke