Review: “Jia Zhang-Ke, a Guy from Fenyang”

Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, during the première of his latest documentary Jia Zhang-Ke, a Guy from Fenyang” at this year’s Berlinale, told the audience  a story of how he and Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke met each other at the 48th Berlinale in 1998. That year, the Brazilian filmmaker won the golden bear with “Central Station”, and Jia made his première of his debut film, “Pickpocket” in the Panorama section. Thanks to that great encounter, Salles’ documentary exists today. This is excellent proof that film festivals are quite magical.


It is never easy to make a film in a different country, let alone different languages – yet Salles does so beautifully. Importantly, Salles keeps his distance from the film itself. He is not playing the role as a storyteller, but rather, a silent listener. The camera is always on Zhang-Ke, and he guides us from the very beginning, from the shabby high street of his hometown Fenyang, to the brand new flat of his parents’, sharing the stories behind all his films, from “Pickpocket” to “A Touch of Sin”. The whole journey is companied by nostalgia: the karaoke once appeared in his film has gone, as has the orange tree in front of his family’s old house; the coal mines, however, remain the same. By using original footage from Zhang-Ke’s films, Salles renders an exquisite sense of nostalgia.

There are precious moments in the films which depict unknown sides to Zhang-Ke. After visiting his family, Zhang-Ke talked about his father. When he first showed his father “Platform” (his second feature film), the father said nothing until the next morning. Zhang-Ke shared his father’s miserable, mistreated experiences during the Cultural Revolution, and his father’s worries for Zhang-Ke and his film. Suddenly, Zhang-Ke begins to cry.

There is no doubt that the tears are for his father, but there is also something about his destiny in the tears as well. Zhang-Ke’s films are always socially concerned, and there are many taboos involved in his films which breach the laws of the Chinese government. Most of his films were banned in China, including the newly released Cannes award winner “A Touch of Sin”. When the film was first shown in Cannes Film Festival, Zhang-Ke proudly announced that it would soon be seen in China, but ultimately, he did not manage to make this happen. In his documentary, Salles touches on a painful phase that Zhang-Ke went through, wherein he considered giving up filmmaking because of the doomed fate of “A Touch of Sin” in his homeland. Zhang-Ke thus returned to Fenyang, trying to figure out the next step of his career in his hometown.


Luckily enough for us, Zhang-Ke eventually decided to carry on making films. His new film, “Mountains May Depart” has already premiered at Cannes Film Festival. Zhang-Ke’s wife and muse, Zhao Tao is in the film, and showcases her beautiful dancing. Tao’s beautiful dancing in “Pickpocket” formed a part of her reminiscence in Salles’ documentary.

The ending scene of the film is one of the most poignant. After Zhang-Ke returns to Fenyang, he invites childhood friends to reunite at a dinner. Zhang-Ke gets drunk, and the song “The Love of Kingdom and the Beauties” suddenly plays. This is a beautiful echo back to Zhang-Ke’s first film, “Pickpocket”, in which also he used the song. Lily Lee sings, “Life is short, why don’t we have fun till we get drunk.” Zhang-Ke, merry and well, categorically agrees.

Hao Zhizi

Hao Zhizi

A cinephile, born and rooted in China, based in London, who is extremely interested in the beauty of common point and differences among cultures embodied in films.

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