Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue
Directed by Jia Zhang-ke. China. 2020. 111 mins. # FILMeX
In the past few years, director Jia Zhang-ke has made several attempts to expand his horizons onto more socially connected activities through the Jia Zhangke Art Center, notably the Pingyao International Film Festival and Lvliang Literature Festival. Constantly drawing inspiration from the less economically developed region in Shanxi Province where he comes from, Jia devotes himself to bringing various art forms back to his hometown, with his partner/muse Zhao Tao playing an important role as well. PIFF attracts broad attention both in and outside China with its refreshing lineup of titles by independent filmmakers, its professional organization, and its close connection to the locality. Too much attention it seems, as Jia unexpectedly announced his departure and the handover of PIFF to the Pingyao city government at the end of the 2020 edition. He will stay on, though, as the dean of the upcoming Shanxi Film Academy, a courageous and somewhat bewildering establishment as the Chinese film industry faces more regulations and restrictions each year. The Academy is reported to be collaborating with PIFF, its future shape remaining unclear.
During the same year in which he resigns from PIFF, Jia’s new documentary Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue comes out, a sign of his diversified investment as the film features the Lvliang Literature Festival and the writers attending it. It seems that he is making the best use of all the resources at hand and combining them when he needs to, while letting go of those he is unable to control.
The first edition of the Lvliang Literature Festival opened in May 2019, with a number of lectures and symposium sessions plus film screenings. The purpose of the festival is clear; it seeks to promote art creation (in the general sense) according to China’s sense of pragmatic time, while providing opportunities for the local community. As good as the intention is, the festival positions itself as yet another follower of the sclerotic mainstream literature sector. Instead of being adventurous or experimental —running the risk of government disapproval, the festival stays on the safe side. The festival guests (writers along with a few critics and performers) are overwhelmingly dominated by well-established names like Mo Yan and Su Tong, who have had their share of prizes and fame. They represent the first generation of writers growing up and achieving (officially allowed) success in the PRC, whose age span appears rather wide as it took more time to reach adolescence in the first few decades.
The documentary stands as the belated completion of Jia’s Artist Trilogy after Dong, 2006 (featuring painter Liu Xiaodong and the Three Gorges Dam) and Useless, 2007 (featuring fashion designer Ma Ke). It looks at the starting points of writing for three writers respectively born in the 1950s (Jia Pingwa), 60s (Yu Hua) and 70s (Liang Hong) through interviews with them and their relatives. What’s shared by all of them and the director is their focus on commonplace life, the joys and sorrows of ordinary people as well as the vicissitude of the local community, as in what’s called native-soil literature. This sensibility is accompanied by Jia Pingwa’s patriarchal conservatism, Yu Hua’s humor and wit, and Liang Hong’s touching comprehension about family which is also the reoccurring theme in her work. Not willing to hand over the initiative to the writers, though, the director determines to create his own narrative on top of the writers’, which emphasizes the bonding with the place and people in Shanxi — the director’s native soil. Episodes centered around each writer come one after another but are mediated by quotes from either the same writer or others, recited by random villagers. Disordering that structure, the film is divided into 18 chapters with keywords from home to mother. It opens with close-ups of the elderly lining up for food in a canteen in Shanxi, and interviews with individuals who have been there long enough to tell the history of the Jia Village at the dawn of the PRC in their dialects, a challenge to understand for a regular audience. An interview with the daughter of the late writer Ma Feng, who is also from this province, contributes to this culturally local itineration, leading to the episodes about another fellow townsman Jia Pingwa. Extracts of the speeches on the literature festival are arranged as the link between the specific locality of Shanxi, and Yu Hua and Liang Hong who are from other regions but cherish a similar sense of the vernacular.
The documentary reminds us of The Inspired Island directed by a few emerging Taiwanese directors a few years ago, a warm-hearted series with each title devoted to one writer or poet from Taiwan or Hong Kong. The island writers strike us as independent individuals, each with their signature innovations of form and/or subject, meanwhile sharing certain connections with the island they live on. Whereas those in Swimming appear more as a collective displaying more homogeneity than heterogeneity.
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