At a kitchen table where two younger women are industriously assembling dumplings, an elderly resident of Jia Family Village, a rural settlement in China’s Shanxi province, reflects on a colorful past. In the 1950s, he served as First Secretary of the Communist Youth League, playing his own part in the country’s social revolution and carousing with celebrated local writer Ma Feng. His stories are shambling and long-winded, but it doesn’t much matter, since nobody aside from the camera is really listening. The women continue their culinary labor without looking up as he rambles pleasantly away; he seems accustomed by now to life carrying on without him.
This lovely passing moment that comes early on in Jia Zhang-ke’s new documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue,” a film otherwise pretty short on small or incidental gestures, with its themes largely spoken rather than observed. Following his films “Dong” (2006) and “Useless” (2007) — studies of painter Liu Xiaodong and fashion designer Ma Ke, respectively — Jia’s latest belatedly completes a loose nonfiction trilogy on Chinese artists, this one taking four authors as its focus as a number of them congregate at a Shanxi literary festival. “Dong” and “Useless” were short, illuminating works; the two-hour “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue,” as signified by its lolling, poetic title, is rather more of a sprawl, seeking to address a hefty chunk of modern Chinese cultural history through the lives and legacies of its chosen quartet of writers.
The result, though intermittently stirring and often luminously shot, represents something of a chore for all but the most ardent Jia completists — and even some of them may be left adrift by the literary scope of a film that does surprisingly little to contextualize its subjects for viewers unfamiliar with their work. Presented as a special gala at this year’s Berlinale, the film feels a tad rough-edged and arrhythmic for this usually meticulous auteur, and another pass through the editing room wouldn’t go amiss. After Jia’s recent hot streak in narrative film — peaking with 2018’s top-form “Ash is Purest White” — his global distributors may choose to sit this one out, though festival programmers will remain loyal.
A winding, discursive structure of 18 “chapters” — some single, ambient shots, others built around lengthy talking-head interviews — sees the film’s approach shift between straightforward biography and more personal, emotive ruminations on social change in China over the last century. The component binding the film’s various topics of extended conversation is a celebration of China’s neglected rural hinterlands, centred on the regional character of Shanxi: Jia’s own home province and an evocative backdrop to a number of his films. Though such regions have lost much of their younger population to the cities in recent decades, “Swimming Out” optimistically centers writers — not all of them fellow Shanxi natives — who have stayed put to document rural life and evolution.
The first of these, the aforementioned Ma Feng, passed away in 2004, and his career and influence on the other three (each representing a successive generation, and all alive and well in the film) is discussed in adulatory terms: In addition to his literary contribution to Shanxi history, he was a community leader who campaigned for the improvement of the region’s salty, infertile soil.
We move on to 67-year-old Jia Pingwa, the son of counterrevolutionaries who became a leading figure in China’s roots literature movement; 59-year-old Yu Hua, a slight thematic outlier for his oeuvre’s focus on individualism over community, as well as transitional urban-rural spaces; and 46-year-old Liang Hong, the only woman of the four, who has devoted multiple volumes to the effect of political and economic change on her home village, and movingly reflects on her mother’s passing. The three living authors are all generous interviewees, though aside from stray quotes from their books recited by younger readers — and repeated in text on a black screen — the film can’t do much to make their work seem more immediate to audiences. (Oddly, there’s nary a mention of the fact that Yu Hua’s novel “To Live” became one of Zhang Yimou’s greatest films in 1994.)
“Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” is thus more rewarding when it focuses on everyday rural rituals and images, be it a gorgeous, gradually panoramic scene of villagers harvesting wheat, a flotilla of paper lanterns on the Yellow River, or a gentle, plainspoken interview with Liang’s physics-fixated 14-year-old son. (Some potentially touching scenes are lost to bombast: In a film heavy on classical cues from Shostakovich and Rachmaninov, delicate footage of the Liang family’s trip to the cemetery is ruinously scored to Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.”) The final effect is patchier and stuffier than it ought to be, particularly given that Jia’s bittersweet home-soil nostalgia has already made for a more consistent documentary that he didn’t direct: Walter Salles’ flavorful 2014 portrait “Jia Zhang-ke: A Guy From Fenyang.” With respect to his estimable chosen subjects, perhaps there are too many people’s words in the way this time.