Jia Zhangke’s bound for the fields, the seacoast, and the vicissitudes of time in his new literary documentary

Ruairí McCann on Jia Zhangke’s ‘Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue’ (2020)

Jia Zhangke is deeply rooted to his land. His art is defined by a commitment to looking at a Chinese society in near-perpetual ferment. For his newest feature, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue / Yi zhi you dao hai shui bian lan, Jia passes the prism to four other artists. Specifically, four writers. There’s the late Ma Feng (1922-2004)—whose biography and aura are recounted by two of his contemporaries and his daughter—and then there’s the living, Jia Pingwa (1952- ), Yu Hua (1960- ) and Liang Hong (1973- ). The latter three aren’t reanimated but mustered by the inaugural Lyujiang Literature Festival, which was co-founded by Jia and situated in the Jiajiazhuang village in Fenyang (Jia’s home city). From there, Jia follows the writers across North and East China, to their respective homes in Xi’an, Hangzhou and rural Henan. 

Appearing by order of birth, each writer, to varying degrees, discusses the origins and course of their vocations. They also discuss their heimaten, the social seachanges they have experienced, and the effect both have had on their work. These interviews—which are dialogues turned monologues in the edit—reveal a breadth and depth of experience that covers the birth of the People’s Republic to its late-capitalist transformation. As they cycle through the major events of their—and their nation’s—lives it also becomes a record of how a society changes on a micro level, how fashions, customs, and expectations are mutable or, in some instances, completely fall away. Meanwhile, the fundamentals stay the same. In other words, to use a discarded English title of another Jia film: love and money. Both are constant concerns, either implicitly or explicitly, and almost always intertwined.

Jia has made documentaries about art and artists before, with Dong (2006), Useless (2007), and I Wish I Knew (2010). The latter, whose subject is the Shanghai film industry and its influence, is a lot like Swimming Out…. Both focus on the spoken word, its gallery of contributors, and how it reels through the years. I Wish I Knew is a weaker film though, perhaps Jia’s weakest so far. It would be a lie to say that it contains no frissons or ingenuity, and neither do I discount it for its logocentrism. But, still, it has a flat quality, a utilitarianism common amongst other mass survey, cultural-historical docs concerned less with artistic expression than with gathering and dispensing as much information as possible.

In comparison, Swimming Out… shares some of the same air but performs a more skilful dance of ideological ambiguity, moving back and forth across a fine line between impartiality and subtle ruefulness. Elegiac, perhaps, is the better word, since the latter quality is helped considerably by the soundtrack, which features a bevy of Russians, from Shostakovich to Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff. Shostakovich features most prominently, with a section from his Symphony No. 15 the film’s main motif. Though, additionally, he bears a significant symbolic weight as the Soviet Union’s most famous composer who both flourished and struggled under the aegis of a state not unlike the PRC. Shostakovich is a powerful example of the complex relationship that can exist between the artist and the body politic, which each writer in Jia’s film discusses in some shape or form.

Sergei Eisenstein is another touchstone for Jia. Old and New (1929) (better known now as The General Line) is a film as pastoral and beautiful as Swimming Out… often is, and which is referenced in a chapter heading—one of eighteen, which divvy the film loosely rather than decisively. Also, on the onset of production, Jia stated that the film “will be an Eisenstein-styled film, with great subjective influence”. 

The use of sound is, indeed, Eisensteinian, in that it complies with the Soviet auteur’s assertion that audio should operate on a related but independent plane, rather than just be subservient to the image. Jia then peppers his classical selection and the direct sound with fragments of other music, samples of archival spoken word, movie dialogue, and other found sound effects, which drop or flutter in and out of the mix like traces of memories. Their details all foggy but their ghosts are naggingly impressionable. It is a suitable approach, in that it adds to the steady accrual of nostalgia. But it also creates some specific, very expressive moments.

In one scene,  Jia Pingwa discusses his first exposure to Western art. Two voices, in monotone, make up a duet of cultural exchange, one speaks English and another Chinese, translating each other’s phrases. Another, earlier instance takes a more realistic tact as a train cuts through Fenyang with a light patina of beeps and squeaks coming from mobile games summing up the cluttered soundscape of modern life and the desire to quicken a commute. The sequence ends at a train station, where another airing of Shostakovich abruptly finishes with a coda performed by a soloing Nokia ringtone. 

The cinematography is handled by Yu Lik-wai, one of Jia’s closest collaborators, returning after a brief sabbatical. Together they avoid the turgidity of most ‘talking head’ visual schemes and inscribe subjectivity in the cinematography. If, as the critic Andrew Sarris once said of the director Otto Preminger, the space of the two-shot is one of psychological ambiguity, here the instability of a constantly, slowly drifting camera and very exact focus pull is one of acknowledged subjectivity and the tenuity of memory. 

This ambiguity is amplified by the editing and location choice. In regard to the former, interviewees are often shown in close-up and then Jia generally cuts out—maintaining the same angle but now they are in long shot—or else he cuts away, with the writer still in the frame, but at a different angle. It disavows any notion that holding a close-up establishes a direct line, or even an intimacy, between subject and audience. This suits a reticent figure like Jia Pingwa, who, as the ostracised son of a victim of the Cultural Revolution—and who later in life, for many years, was debilitated by a serious illness—is more often than not shown in isolation, in an empty theatre or workshop. While the seemingly more people-oriented and affable Yu Hua is often shown alone but in more public or outdoor locations. In other words, places where you are more aware of the comings and goings of the outside world. 

In Liang Hong’s segment, the form becomes sublimely simple. Her interview, which is focused less on her writing than on her family’s tribulations through the years, is crosscut with slowed-down images of village life, of harvest and a running river. Her life, as it is and has been, shaped and defined by the flow of people and time. 

‘Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue’ screened virtually as part of the 4th East Asia Film Festival Ireland on the Irish Film Institute’s IFI@Home player. It is also showing as part of the New York Film Festival.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Director Jia Zhangke 賈樟柯

Writer Jia Zhangke, Wan Jiahuan 萬家歡

Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 於力偉

Editor Kong Jing-lei 孔靜蕾

Cast Jia Pingwa 賈平娃, Yu Hua 於華, Liang Hong 梁宏

Duration 112 minutes

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.