Jia Zhangke’s movies, Documentary and fictional, zoom in on the nuanced details of personal life. Also, they are chapters of a single, unimaginably complex story of China’s transformation in the decades following the 1949 revolution. Jia, who was born in 1970, has a tendency to live in recent times, and roam back to Shanxi, the part of northern China where she grew up, but is a continuation of history and geography, generations and place.
His latest documentary, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turn Blue”, is intimate and distinctive, featuring interviews with three writers – Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong, mainly associated with Shanxi. They reminisce about their families and careers, and their occasional drenches, sometimes during the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s and’ 70s, and the subsequent urbanization and capitalist expansion. Reminiscing about exhilarating experiences. Peers, neighbors and family members listed as “witnesses” in the final credits, contribute their own anecdotes and insights. The film is an influential group portrait and also a complex and subtle piece of literary criticism.
Seeing this, I wish I would have been more familiar with the work of its subjects. Some of it has been translated into English, notably Jia Pingwa’s “Ruined City” and Yu’s “Two Liv”, which was its basis. Zhang Yimou’s acclaimed 1994 film. But Jia Zhangke’s patient listening and the elegant clarity of the film’s structure – it moves in roughly chronological order, divided into smaller sections that tell where it’s going – make it accessible to the curious- Already, the experts have to illuminate.
In addition, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” destroys historical episodes that are often presented as abstract, at least in the West, and largely personalize events. Politics hovers over writers’ lives, but their understanding of national and regional history is filtered through work, family, and landscape. Jia Pingwa remembers the hardship her father, a teacher, had faced during the Cultural Revolution. Yu talks about her career transition from dentist to novelist. Liang sinks into her mother’s illness and painful memories of her sister’s marriage. Between the lines of his conversation with the overlooked director you can understand the elusive big story about the development of a poor, rural corner of an emerging global superpower – which is his subject and his subject.
Swim out to sea blue
Not rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes. in Theaters.