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.
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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.