A Guy from Fenyang
A director making a documentary about a fellow director does not always make for a good film. There is a fine line to tread between mutual admiration and self-congratulation, but Brazilian director Walter Salles manages it well in his expansive, if slightly ponderous, study of Chinese director and screenwriter Jia Zhangke. The simple premise involves Salles following Jia as he revisits his hometown and various locations from his films, recalling the motivations behind his filmmaking, his family’s reactions, and the difficulties of making films under the restrictive Chinese government.
Salles remains a relatively passive presence in his film, providing no voiceover or other common documentary clichés. The interviews are interrupted only with lengthy clips from Jia’s films to accompany his stories, in between anecdotes from actors Xia Wu and Wang Hongwei, director Yu Lik-wai, and Jia’s muse, leading lady and wife, Zhao Tao. Together they stroll through the Fenyang courtyards, streets and ruins of Platform, Still Life and Unknown Pleasures, in a journey through the film history of one auteur.
Muted colours, wide shots with few edits, and a distinctively homemade, handheld aesthetic from Chilean cinematographer Briones reflect the visual messages of many of Jia’s films. This also gives the film a serene, contemplative tone which occasionally congeals into sluggishness: a few of the anecdotes becoming rambling in their nostalgia. The most interesting aspect of the film is the unique cultural and political issues which become apparent during Jia’s interviews. Censorship, economic uncertainty and drastic social changes are all recurring themes in his life and thus in his films, and the sense of the growing dilemma of Chinese identity is evident in the lives of those around him, as well as the characters he has created.
Salles’ documentary is very cerebral, and may risk alienating the average audience member, as much as it will appeal to cinephiles. But it is an intimate and personal insight into one of world cinema’s most important living directors, and will hopefully introduce newcomers to his work, something which cannot be criticised.
A Guy from Fenyang does not have a UK release date yet.
Watch the trailer for A Guy from Fenyang here: