Spotlight on Jia Zhangke

Unknown Pleasures (2002) Directed by Jia Zhangke
Unknown Pleasures (2002) Directed by Jia Zhangke. Image credit: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

A key filmmaker of the Sixth Generation, Jia Zhangke is today widely recognized as one of China’s leading independent filmmakers. He was born in 1970 in Fenyang, Shanxi province, located in the north of China, and started making films in the 1990s as a student in Beijing.

Michael Berry, in his preface to the BFI Film Classic on Jia Zhangke’s Hometown Trilogy, explores the ways in which Jia, like other sixth generation filmmakers, captured the realities of contemporary urban life. Jia's early work consists of a series of low-budget films employing non-professional actors about everyday life in small-town China; ‘while the subject matter and presentation may appear crude, they are portraits drawn with masterful visual strokes, displaying sensitivity, style and more than their fair share of cinematic brilliance’.

In this chapter from The Cinema of Jia Zhangke: Realism and Memory in Chinese Film, Cecília Mello suggests that Jia's filmic impulse was born out of the rapid social and infrastructural changes taking place in Chinese cities during the 1990s. She explores how Jia Zhangke articulates his original aesthetic, describing it as ‘a desire to register and to preserve – through cinema’s unique recording ability – an ephemeral space’. Jia has himself acknowledged in several interviews in the past decade (see, e.g., M. Berry 2009; Fiant 2009; Jia 2009b; Mello 2014c), that he is conscious of how memory is a spatial as much as a temporal phenomenon, and of how a disappearing space implies the loss of memory. From this, he derives an urgency to film these spaces and these memories, felt to be always on the cusp of disappearance.