Jia Zhangke has described his new documentary, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” as “not only a journey in contemporary Chinese literature, but also a journey into the spiritual history of the Chinese people.” Appropriately, the film sees Jia take on the role of a sentimental tour guide, reconstructing the lives and experiences of four 20th century authors through interviews and vivid tableaux of their hometowns.
The first subject of the documentary may be the least well-known, but he’s also possibly the closest to Jia’s heart. The director kicks off the film in his hometown, Jia Family Village in the northern Shanxi province, with the story of another local boy made good: Ma Feng (1922-2004), a leading figure in Shanxi’s rustic shanyaodan school of the 1950s and 1960s.
The other three authors are the film’s true draws, however. In order, Jia Zhangke interviews the well-known novelists Jia Pingwa (b. 1952) and Yu Hua (b. 1960) before finishing the film with the nonfiction writer Liang Hong (b. 1973). The discussions center on themes that run through all of Jia’s feature films, including the individual’s search for identity and freedom and their unbreakable ties to their homelands. His choice of subjects is telling. At a time when female authors are an increasingly prominent force in Chinese literature and nonfiction, his choice to interview just one woman — Liang, also the only non-novelist of the bunch — traps “Swimming” in the past in ways he may not have intended.
The audience is first introduced to Jia Pingwa — no relation to the director — as he takes in a qin opera performance in his hometown. Qin, like Jia Pingwa himself, hails from the northwestern Shaanxi province, and Jia has long been a fan: His 12th novel, “Qin Melody” was awarded China’s highest literature prize in 2008.
A still of Jia Pingwa from the documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.” From Douban
Later, sitting on the stage, Jia Pingwa recounts his family’s story as a series of tricks that history plays on individuals caught in its grasp. During the Chinese Civil War, Jia Pingwa’s uncle picked up a discarded Nationalist army coat from a battlefield, which he then gave to Jia’s father. Years later, the coat brought disaster on the household when the victorious Communists took it as proof that his father was a counterrevolutionary. His tainted family background cost him the opportunity to serve in the People’s Liberation Army, as well as numerous study and work opportunities, until his skill at calligraphy led to him unexpectedly getting a job writing slogans for a local production brigade. It was his ability to write that finally allowed him to venture out into the wider world; he used his pen to wrest control of the history that had once threatened to sweep him away.
In “Swimming,” Jia Zhangke positions Jia Pingwa as a master of grand narratives, perfectly in tune with his hometown’s cultural landscape and family structures. It’s disappointing, then, that neither writer nor director thought to interrogate the author’s biggest blind spot: Jia Pingwa’s novels are peppered with two-dimensional, objectifying portrayals of woman who exist to satisfy the male gaze. It’s not as if the issue isn’t germane to the film, either. In the course of a family meal, the director captures a telling exchange between the writer and his daughter in which Jia Pingwa admonishes her for her plan to publish a poetry collection. “Being a good wife and a good mother should come before writing poetry,” he lectures her.
Yu Hua injects a bit of much-needed levity into the film, even if most of the stories he tells are repeated from earlier writings and interviews. The gist of the narrative is this: After the Cultural Revolution, Yu failed to pass the college entrance exam and instead became a dentist in Haiyan, a small coastal town in the eastern Zhejiang province. Yu hated the job — in the film he repeats his oft-told joke that “the mouth is the least beautiful place in the world” — and came to envy the slow-paced lives of the town’s cultural workers. So, he decided to try his hand at writing novels.
A still of Yu Hua from the documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.” From Douban
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the golden age of post-revolutionary literature in China, young writers were a dime a dozen. Yu submitted numerous stories, but they were all rejected — until one day he received a phone call from an editor in Beijing inviting him to travel to the capital to revise a manuscript. The editor took Yu under her wing, and within a year he was one of the most promising members of China’s new “avant-garde.”
In front of the camera, Yu Hua is unusually animated, mesmerizing the audience with the verve of a seasoned performer. He mocks the bitterness and frustrations of his youth with the kind of self-satisfied hindsight that comes from the knowledge that he would be plucked from obscurity and put on the fast track to success. Recalling the first time he received a note from a girl in class, he remembers that it was an official letter of criticism for an overdue library book. “It was folded in such a complicated way that it took me 20 minutes to open,” he recalls. “Finally, I got it open, and it was criticizing me, but I know that’s not what she actually meant,” he says with a wry smirk.
At the screening I attended, the punchline caused the female members of the audience to erupt in laughter, but perhaps not in the way Yu intended. If a 17-year-old Yu Hua were transplanted to the present day, he’d no doubt be instantly recognizable to his female classmates as the archetypal “so mediocre but still so confident” man. At issue here is more than just a lame joke, though. Yu and Jia’s narratives are tied together by nostalgia for a time and place that few women will find relatable. If their stories come off as egocentric and self-involved, it’s in no small part because in those days, life in rural and semi-rural China really did revolve around men.
It falls to Liang Hong to bring the film home, and the story she tells has little of the self-assurance that mark Jia Pingwa and Yu Hua’s narratives. Instead, she tenderly reminisces about the “things that stay with you your entire life”: her mother’s long illness, the flighty father who ensured she was educated but struggled with the responsibilities of running a household, and the talented elder sister who sacrificed her youth to keep her family afloat. If Jia Pingwa and Yu seem to view their rise as almost foreordained, Liang turns the focus to the price others paid to lift her up. Through it all, she dispenses with the knowing egoism of the previous two authors, bravely and selflessly baring her heart to the camera.
A still of Liang Hong from the documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.” From Douban
When production on “Swimming” began, the project was titled “Literary Memories of a Village.” Toward the end of filming, however, Jia followed Yu back to his hometown of Haiyan. On a windy night, Yu looked out at the billowing waves and vividly described the contrast between that sight and the brackish yellow waters of the coast when he remembers seeing when he was young. He recalls wondering as a child whether, if he kept swimming further and further out, the sea eventually might turn as blue as it was depicted in books? Struck by the image, Jia scrapped his original title and renamed the film.
On a symbolic level, Yu Hua’s tale was about his struggle to free himself from the muddy waters of his hometown. In this, it resembles Jia Pingwa’s narrative of how he used writing to escape his tainted class background. Both see the world and return home triumphant, a journey that encapsulates the overriding theme of the film, as rose-tinted nostalgia and stories of the past are repurposed in service of self-validation.
It is only Liang who briefly sidetracks the film from this self-serving mythos. As in her poignant nonfiction works on her home village over the years, she tells stories not for herself or to better her own life, but for her audience: taking them into the lives of “the little black spots moving across the earth — the people — who are trapped by tiredness and happiness.”
Unfortunately, her interview alone isn’t enough to counterbalance the male-centric stance of the rest of the film. As I watched, I couldn’t decide whether Jia Zhangke is as blind to gender issues as his subjects are, or whether he made the decision during editing to let them tell their stories how they wanted. Judging from audience reactions, however, female moviegoers did not appreciate the imbalance.
Strained laughter and a muted critical response will hardly end Jia Zhangke’s career, but the film points to a deeper problem: male auteurs who enjoy early success, like Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and even Jia Zhangke himself, run the risk of losing touch with the real world. Perhaps they don’t know or care, but that lack of awareness could one day end up costing them not just women, but their whole audience.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Director Jia Zhangke (right) and writer Yu Hua. From @贾樟柯 on Weibo)