When Jia Zhangke made his 1997 feature debut, Xiao Wu, he was rebelling against decades of tradition that had drawn a hard line between cinema and reality. Chinese film history is rooted in genres found in classical theater and literature, like wuxia and fantasy, and the industry’s reliance on artifice was only heightened by the Cultural Revolution, a period when filmmaking was viewed as a tool of the Communist regime. Jia’s raw, groundbreaking depiction of petty crime, small-town malaise, and economic degradation made him a controversial figure, and his early work was banned by the authorities. Two decades later, though, he stands as the nation’s leading art-house auteur, with an international influence that can be felt in at least two generations of directors who have turned their cameras on some of the most urgent social issues of the day. In anticipation of the Stateside release of his latest, Ash Is Purest White, Jia paid a visit to the Criterion office, where he shared with us some reflections on one of his favorite films, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and what one particular scene taught him about the power of movies to capture the joy and pain of everyday life amid seismic change.
The following text is drawn from excerpts of an interview, translated from the Mandarin by Andrew Chan. Special thanks to Vincent Tzu-Wen Cheng.
The first time I saw Bicycle Thieves was in the late seventies, when I was around ten years old. The Cultural Revolution had just ended, and the government was digging up a lot of old movies from before the Revolution to show the public. There were three cinemas near where I lived in Fenyang, and my mother had worked at one of them, so the employees there would let me in. Bicycle Thieves was one of the movies I saw, and it left a deep impression on me. What it showed us of life in postwar Italy seemed so similar to what we were going through on the other side of the world. Even though the foreigners had bigger noses than we did, the film looked like it might as well have been shot in my hometown. That kind of poverty was familiar to me; there was nothing about it that needed to be explained.
Years later, I saw it again in college, in a class where we were learning about film theory and world cinema history. We were mainly looking at Bicycle Thieves as a model of leftist social criticism. But I was particularly struck by how extraordinary it was just on a visual level. I even wrote in my notebook at the time about how De Sica used changes in the weather, and the turning of day into night, as a kind of organizing principle, to give the audience a tactile feeling of being in that place with those characters. Cinema can so easily become an overpowering, coercive medium, with the director positioning himself as a god, leading the audience to predetermined conclusions. But in Bicycle Thieves, you don’t feel like you’re being controlled. Instead, you feel like you’re part of an experience.
Watching De Sica’s movies helped me see the relationship between cinema and reality in a whole new light. To understand this, you have to go back to what the movies meant to Chinese people at that time. There was a deep-rooted tradition of adapting theater to the screen—the very first Chinese movie ever made, The Battle of Mount Dingjun (1905), is an example of that. From the beginning, we were taught to expect that every movie would have a strong theatrical element and that the world on-screen was completely separate from reality. But by the time I started studying film in the 1990s, Chinese filmmakers were trying to figure out how to capture reality. You’d think that would be such a simple thing to do, but in fact it was a big leap for us. At the time, we only had commercial movies, including Hong Kong cinema, and propaganda. The Italian neorealists gave many of us the inspiration to turn our cameras to real people and experiences. We found ourselves borrowing a lot of their methods—on-location shooting, the use of nonprofessional actors, open-ended narratives—to construct a sense of the real.
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