Rome Film Review: ‘Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang’

Brazilian director Walter Salles' documentary portrait of the trailblazing Chinese auteur is intelligent and warmly intimate.

Jia Zhangke, Zhao Tao, Wang Hongwei, Han Sanming, Yu Lik-wai, Zhang Ruiying, Zhang Hong, Li Xudong, Zhang Yang. (Mandarin dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4092686/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_1

Auteur portraits of fellow auteurs don’t always make for illuminating films: The line between sincere mutual appreciation and smug mutual congratulation can be a fine one. Brazilian director Walter Salles, however, gets the balance just about right in “Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang,” an intelligent, restrained but warmly intimate cinematic conversation with the Sixth Generation Chinese trailblazer. Similarly simple in concept to Olivier Assayas’ 1997 study of Hou Hsiao Hsien, Salles’ film follows Jia as he wanders the scarred streets of his hometown — many of them recognizable from his own films — and muses wryly on a politically fractious career. Unspooled in Rome as a “work in progress” (effectively complete, but minus closing credits) ahead of its world premiere at the Sao Paolo fest, this clip-heavy cinephile’s delight should get heavy play on the festival and repertory circuit.

There are few obvious points of identification between the burnished, gently conventional storytelling of Salles’ work (“Central Station,” “On the Road”) and Jia’s more austere, sometimes abrasive brand of humanism, but that may be why “A Guy From Fenyang” works as well as it does. Salles approaches his subject as an admiring peer, but doesn’t go to smarmy lengths to forge a spiritual connection between their filmographies. Indeed, the Brazilian helmer’s own career goes largely unmentioned here, though his directorial hand is evident in the film’s crisp, airy visual composure and aptitude for social geography; it’s left to the viewer to conclude that this oddly matched pair may have more in common than meets the eye.

From the wandering social realism of his early Shanxi Province trilogy to his journalistic documentary work to the more violent, wuxia-colored cri de coeur that was 2013’s “A Touch of Sin,” Jia’s films are bound by an elegiac concern for the shifting infrastructure, cultural blind spots and socioeconomic constraints of contemporary China. Salles’ film follows suit, finding the filmmaker in dryly good-humored but decidedly anxious form, seemingly burned by his recent run-in with Chinese censors over “Sin” — a film still, at time of writing, unreleased in its home country, despite administrators’ insistence that it hasn’t been banned. “We live in a time of confused values and national malaise,” Jia observes wearily. His own sense of personal malaise, meanwhile, is put in more visceral terms: “My guts are messed up,” he mumbles, between cigarette drags.

Popular on Variety

The decay isn’t just internal, as Inti Briones’ camera finds the city of Fenyang in a similarly doleful state. Salles and Jia revisit key locations from his films and encounter a discouraging succession of boarded windows, depopulated streets and disappeared apple trees. The colorful cluster of karaoke bars so integral to Jia’s feature debut, “Xiao Wu,” has been erased entirely, a victim not just of economic recession but of governmental puritanism to boot. Jia absorbs the drastic changes with unsurprised melancholy, perhaps seeing that his films and the karaoke quarter aren’t such different entities in the current climate.

Jia is joined on his excursions by a range of acquaintances and associates, among them actors Wang Hongwei and Han Sanming, who offer their own reflections on the director’s work and its place in modern-day China. Further perspective is contributed by a range of talking heads, including, of course, Jia’s wife and muse, Zhao Tao; below-the-line collaborators share valuable insights on Jia’s evolving aesthetic, and the practical nuts and bolts behind it. (His longtime d.p. Yu Lik-wai relates an amusing but revealing anecdote on how the director effectively tricked him into his now-signature use of DV.) Family also figures heavily into the equation, with onscreen testimony from Jia’s mother and sister, while the filmmaker offers a moving dedication to his late father — an academically inclined man, made fearful by the Cultural Revolution, who viewed his son’s “counter-revolutionary” work with justifiably nervous pride.

With material this substantial, Salles arguably doesn’t need to lean as heavily on Jia’s own films as he does, though editor Joana Collier cuts to them at apposite moments to bring Fenyang’s changing face into sharp relief. The length and number of extracts used could easily be reduced if there’s any demand to shave the film’s current (and quite reasonable) 103-minute running time to fit ancillary requirements. Still, the generosity of the selections gives newcomers to Jia’s work a fair indication of its distinctive rhythmic and structural qualities, while even agnostics may be tempted to take another look at the likes of “Unknown Pleasures” and “24 City.”

In her first collaboration with Salles, accomplished Chilean cinematographer Briones (“The Loneliest Planet”) captures Fenyang’s urban deterioration in dusty tones and serene long takes that cannily channel Jia’s visual instincts — while keeping this documentary foray firmly of a piece with the Brazilian’s oeuvre.

Rome Film Review: 'Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang'

Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (Special Events), Oct. 20, 2014. (Also in Sao Paulo Film Festival.) Running time: 103 MIN.

Production: (Brazil-France) A VideoFilmes presentation. (International sales: MK2 Intl., Paris.) Produced by Maria Carlota Bruno.

Crew: Directed by Walter Salles. Camera (color, HD), Inti Briones; editor, Joana Collier; sound, Li Dan-feng.

With: Jia Zhangke, Zhao Tao, Wang Hongwei, Han Sanming, Yu Lik-wai, Zhang Ruiying, Zhang Hong, Li Xudong, Zhang Yang. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Parasite Movie

    'Parasite' Enjoys Record Box Office Boost After Oscar Wins

    Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” is reaping box office riches after its groundbreaking Oscar best picture win. The twisted South Korean thriller collected $5.5 million over the weekend, an exceptional 234% increase in ticket sales and the biggest post-Oscar boost for a best picture winner in the past decade. In the seven days since the Academy [...]

  • Nikita Pearl Waligwa

    Nikita Pearl Waligwa, Actor in Disney's 'Queen of Katwe,' Dies at 15

    Nikita Pearl Waligwa, an actor who appeared in Disney’s biographical drama “Queen of Katwe,” has died, according to BBC and the Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor. She was 15. Waligwa had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2016 and seemed to recover a year later. However, in 2019, another tumor was found. “Queen of Katwe” [...]

  • James Marsden and Sonic (Ben Schwartz)

    'Sonic the Hedgehog' Dominates Box Office With Mighty $57 Million Debut

    Paramount’s family film “Sonic the Hedgehog” ignited over Presidents’ Day weekend with $57 million in North America and $100 million globally, the biggest showing ever for a video game adaptation. “Sonic” is expected to earn $68-70 million through Monday, one of the best results for the holiday weekend. The better-than-expected start is even more notable [...]

  • Shaun the sheep

    How '80s Sci-Fi Films Inspired 'Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon'

    Shaun, everyone’s favorite sheep, is back, and this time he’s facing aliens and robots in “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon.” Directors Will Becher and Richard Phelan teamed together on this film for their first full-length collaboration. While the two have been working at Aardman Studios, Phelan’s background was as a story artist and Becher’s [...]

  • Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE

    Box Office: 'Sonic the Hedgehog' Speeding to $65 Million Opening Weekend

    “Sonic the Hedgehog” is speeding to a $65 million opening at the North American box office this President’s Day weekend, according to estimates. Paramount’s action-adventure, based on the Sega video game character, had been pegged to generate $40-45 million prior to its launch. Should estimates hold, it could break the $54 million record set last [...]

  • China Trade War Illustration Variety

    IFTA Says U.S. Should Punish China for Cheating on Film Trade Deal

    The Independent Film & Television Alliance has filed a complaint to the U.S. Trade Representative, calling for the U.S. government to keep China on its Priority Watch List and to monitor China under Section 306 of the Trade Act. The IFTA lobby group, which represents American and international independent film companies, argues that China is [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content