Unknown Pleasures]
Ren xiao yao
review by Gregory Avery, 28  March 2003

The disaffected youth in the twenty-first-century China depicted in Jia Zhang-Ke's Unknown Pleasures seem to be having trouble making any meaningful connections with the world around them. One thin, narrow-faced twenty-year-old, Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei), regards a man who spends all his time singing the same Peking Opera song in a nicotine-stained transit station with a sort of detached bemusement, but he registers no outward emotion. Neither does he do so while watching rental videos with his girlfriend (Zhou Qing Feng) -- they sit side by side, rather chastely, on a sofa -- although Bin Bin seems the last to know when she's about to take her final school examinations. Before she leaves for college, he belatedly makes her a gift of a cellphone so she can call him.

Bin Bin's friend, Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong), who wears his straight black hair in impudent swathes over his face, falls for a girl, Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), who is part of a traveling troop of performers who promote a brand of beer ("art" setting the stage for "economy" to come in and flourish, so we are told). She learns of his infatuation, and Xiao is thrown into the backseat of a car with her, whereupon she demands that he stand-and-deliver. Xiao claims that he can make her, literally, limp as a noodle; what happens is that she takes a drag on her cigarette, kisses him, then sends him on his way -- and he exhales the cigarette smoke. That's a putdown for you.

The action in the film takes place in an industrial city that is in a state of flux -- a major highway is in the process of being built and going through, great stretches of roadway as yet unused but looking like the Los Angeles counterparts that go nowhere in Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays. TV. sets, which seem to be everywhere (and are shown to be already in the process of narcotizing the masses) carry news of the W.T.O. trade summits -- when an explosion is heard, Bin Bin goes to the window and wonders, first thing, if the Americans are attacking. What happened is that the local textile mill has been blown to bits. The town, even before the rubble resulting from the explosion, already has the grayish cast of someplace that's been hit by a thermonuclear blast. That isn't the main reason why the young characters are so doleful, but the reasons are a bit more trickier to discern. At times, Jia's film looks like a Chinese version of one of Antonioni's "landscape without signposts" films from the 'Sixties. (The film has been effectively made using digital Beta equipment by Jia and his cinematographer Yu Lik Wai -- the slight overexposures and sometimes tenuous definition work to the film's advantage.) This is no longer your parents' mainland China, but the new generation seems to be having trouble latching onto anything that would make their lives meaningful or give them purpose. Jia, though, doesn't empty the film out so that there isn't anything there in order to make his point: along with the TVs, there are blaring announcements to participate in cash lotteries, plus the news that Beijing has won the chance to host the next summer Olympics. When the older man who has made Qiao Qiao his mistress catches Xiao dancing with her at a club (giving us a chance to learn what Chinese DJ club music sounds like, too), he achingly brutalizes Xiao.

What Xiao and Bin Bin do is deliberately close themselves off from life -- and, rather than striking us as baffling and empty in itself, the film creates some sequences that powerfully convey what that experience of desperation accompanying such disaffection would be like. Xiao tries to escape on a motorbike that, relentlessly, poops out on him; a man approaches Qiao Qiao, who simply tells him that he "can't afford" her, until he produces a U.S. greenback; Bin Bin is informed that he's come down with a dangerous but treatable disease, but he does nothing about it -- the hospitals and doctors demand payment, in cash, up front before laying a hand on a patient. The title Unknown Pleasures refers to both the writings of Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, who spoke about the pursuit of life's pleasures, with absolute freedom and without constraints, as well as to a popular song taken from Zhuangzi's writings, which further interpreted them to urge youth to do anything, experience any type of pleasure they wanted. In press notes for the film, Jia seems to know what he's talking about---several of the scenes in the film, including the demolition of the industrial plant (perpetrated by an unemployed worker), are based on real-life incidents that  occurred in China during 2001 -- and the characters in the film are representative of the first generation resulting from China's twenty-year-old, enforced one-child family policy. "They'll never have any brothers or sisters," Jia writes. "Destiny has doomed them to a solitary existence".  Jia's film, which is not without some flaws of its own, nonetheless gives us an idea of how a whole generation is locked in a frustration over how to go about doing just what Zhuangzi's writings suggest, and, in the process, raises all sorts of questions, from how to feel that one has earned a certain amount of  happiness to how to allow one's self to be happy in the first place.

Written and
Directed by:

Jia Zhang-Ke

Starring:
Zhao Wei Wei
Wu Qiong
Zhou Qing Feng
Zhao Tao

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not yet
been rated.

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