A meticulously calibrated meditation on a decade of radical cultural reform, “Platform” amply confirms the promise of Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s widely admired 1997 debut, “Xiao Wu.” Working on a larger, more ambitious canvas, Jia focuses on a group of friends from the same provincial town to examine the period from 1979 through 1989, chronicling the transition from post-Cultural Revolution China to a consumer-age nation increasingly susceptible to outside influence. At 3¼ hours, this thoughtful, melancholy drama demands considerable patience and may benefit from the cuts being planned. But even at its present length, “Platform” should sway discerning festival audiences and find a niche on the specialist arthouse fringe.
Set in the director’s native country town of Fenyang in Shanxi Province, the film opens with both a farewell to revolutionary ideals and an acknowledgment of the winds of cultural change blowing: The action cuts from a local theatrical troupe performing songs celebrating Chairman Mao to a mother stitching her son’s flared trousers, the first hint of the arrival of Western fashion. At the center of the drama are two key members of the performance group, Minliang (Wang Hong-wei, also the lead in “Xiao Wu”) and Chang Jun (Liang Jing-dong).
Throughout the film, twin forces of tradition and change, new values and old morality play against each other: Parents continue to talk of arranged marriages while kids flirt and pair up independently; birth control and the one-child-per-family limit are introduced; a sense of the breakdown between generations is felt, as discipline and respect within families begin to falter; the mentality gap widens between artists and manual workers; the commune is privatized, causing an uproar in the village. Also clocked is the arrival of pop music from Taiwan and Hong Kong, new trends as guys grow their hair and girls get perms, and TV and sex education.
Reflecting all this sudden change, Minliang and Chang Jun attempt to take control of their lives and relationships rather than simply comply with the will of their elders. Chang Jun is in love with Zhong Pin (Yang Tian-yi), while Minliang rather more distractedly courts Ruijuan (Zhao Tao), who remains unconvinced by his attentions and confesses in a matter-of-fact manner, in one of the film’s most captivating scenes, that she has never thought of him romantically. Despite her father’s vocal disapproval, Ruijuan ends their relationship to please no one but herself, underlining the new generation of women’s growing assertiveness.
Chang Jun and Zhong Pin are discovered living together illegally, and their relationship ends badly. This is marked by a beautiful scene in which she dances alone in a room, a farewell made all the more poignant by her earlier choice to give up the chance to dance professionally for Chang Jun.
Policy changes in the performance group lead to the introduction of Western music into the act. This gradually evolves into a completely new style as they start touring the provinces with an amusingly cheesy ’80s synth-rock and breakdance revue. Delineated via titles from city to city, the tour is not quite a resounding hit, and the group eventually slinks back to Fenyang.
The quietly doleful conclusion hints that despite all the superficial innovations of the pop-cultural revolution and all the characters’ grand plans, life in the provinces remains largely unchanged, and the future for Minliang and his friends looks an awful lot like that of their parents.
Structuring the richly textured drama as a mosaic of tableaux, with a largely immobile camera capturing action played out within a static frame, Jia displays a maturity and control rare in a director working on only his second feature and coaxes lovely, natural performances from his cast. The film never achieves any real sense of momentum, but instead establishes and sustains a contemplative, unhurried rhythm, communicating information about the characters and their experiences often via seemingly inconsequential fragments that gradually create a substantial picture of life in a particular time and place.
Keeping news of political and economic change firmly in the background and focusing instead on individual vicissitudes, Jia conveys a fascinating sense of the confusion of a period in which traditional attitudes, authority and official laws struggled to keep abreast of all the cultural changes afoot.
With his formal approach, Jia, working again with Yu Lik-wai, who shot “Xiao Wu,” relies extensively on elegant framing and composition, with camera movement limited to occasional pans and perhaps two or three tilts. Title is that of a hit Chinese rock song of the 1980s about hope and expectation, and music is a key element throughout, with ironic lyrics often providing significant commentary.