Jia Zhang-ke’s third feature, “Unknown Pleasures,” offers further evidence of his talent as a distinctive visual stylist and his vocation as a chronicler of the aimlessness and uncertain future of young people in China, struggling to make freedom and independence an individual as well as societal reality. But while it’s more concise in duration than the mainland Chinese director’s much-acclaimed three hour-plus “Platform,” the new drama is far more diluted thematically, touching on a number of interesting points but failing to bring them together in any cohesive way. As lethargic as the characters it portrays, the film requires greater staying power than many audiences will possess. But the director’s reputation plus pockets of ardent critical support will ensure continuing festival exposure.
Structured in a similarly loose, observational mosaic style to “Platform” and sharing some of that film’s themes, this feels in many respects like more of the same. While the action in the earlier work spanned 1979-89, “Pleasures” takes place in 2001, again in a provincial town, and again focusing on four principal characters. Where Jia does depart significantly from “Platform” is in the shooting style, using digital video to allow constant, fluid camera movement within extended takes, rather than the mainly static, composition-driven look of the 2000 feature.
Two unemployed slackers, Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) and Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei), tool around town on their mopeds and hang out at the local community center. With no motivation or job prospects beyond his mother’s wish for him to build some character by joining the army, Bin Bin feels an increasingly widening distance from his academically applied girlfriend Yuan Yuan (Zhou Qing Feng), who plans to study international trade at Beijing university.
A dedicated pleasure-seeker, Xiao Ji hits on beautiful but aloof Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao from “Platform”), who dances in promo-shows for a liquor company and dates her former gym teacher-turned-loan shark. Despite being slapped around by the thug’s flunkies for encroaching on the guy’s romantic turf, Xiao Ji persists in his efforts to win her. However, when Qiao Qiao terminates the relationship with her boyfriend and allows Xiao Ji to get closer, her self-loathing blocks the development of anything significant between them.
Jia creates some poignant images to convey key transitions in the characters’ lives — Yuan Yuan sidling up on her bicycle to unresponsive Bin Bin and then wheeling away without speaking, or Qiao Qiao shedding her wig, dropping her diva persona and doing a doleful traditional Chinese dance after breaking from her boyfriend.
But the shapeless film concerns itself too exclusively with tentative moments rather than concrete incidents, confrontations or resolutions. Consequently, it communicates only a limited sense of what makes the disconnected characters tick. This remoteness is echoed in the good-looking but lifeless cast, who fail to distinguish between bored and boring youth.
The drama casually bears witness via television newscasts to real events of the period such as the bombing of a textiles plant, China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and a collision between U.S. and Chinese military planes. These references, however, constitute fragments rather a coherent political subtext.
Construction of a highway linking the town to Beijing indicates the desire of people in the provinces to establish links with the capital while enthusiasm around the selection of Beijing as 2008 Summer Olympics host city underlines the push to join the world community. Variations on these points were expressed more subtly in “Platform,” as was the idea of traditional culture being smothered by Western influence, conveyed here by such things as Chinese opera existing side by side with lounge acts, dance clubs, commercial jingles and pop ballads on TV.
Jia references his own work in a comment about narrow avenues in China for artistic expression when one character complains that Bin Bin’s stock of pirated DVDs doesn’t include “Platform,” “Xiao Wu” or “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” directed by Jia’s regular cinematographer Yu Lik Wai. The d.p.’s sinuous work here provides evidence of the unconstrained artistic possibilities of DV.