English Title: Platform
Country of Origin: China
Studio: Artcam International
Director: Jia Zhangke
Screenplay: Jia Zhangke
Cinematographer: Nelson Yu Lik-wai
Art Director: Qiu Sheng
Editor: Kong Jinglei
Runtime: 154 minutes
Set in Fengyang in northern China, Platform follows the trajectory of a travelling performance troupe from 1979 to the end of the 1980s. At first doffing Mao suits and performing pieces in praise of the late leader, the troupe undergoes radical changes in both look and sound as they face a brave new world of post-Maoist market forces and cultural shifts unimaginable a few years earlier. Members of the troupe come and go, while those that remain are never quite sure where they stand with each other or the world around them. By the end, all the lives involved with the troupe, including an intricate constellation of relationships, find that a world they once knew is irretrievably lost, while the new world they face is difficult to define.
If Platform is the first film one sees by the director, Jia Zhangke (as it was for this reviewer), then the opening pre-credit sequence deceptively seems like more of the same. An opera troupe gathers on a bus after a performance of Maoist musical numbers. One of the members (Minliang) acts defiantly toward the troupe’s leader, seemingly disrespectful with his string of jokes. This beginning has all the earmarks of yet another tragedy set in the Cultural Revolution, and Minliang is seemingly another victim in the making for failing to conform to the strictures of an extraordinarily brutal time. Yet it turns out that this was not the Cultural Revolution. It is 1979. Moreover, the defiance was more in jest and the troupe leader gave it no heed. It is a pure quotidian moment, closed off by a darkened screen motivated by a darkened moving bus, and the unified howls of the passengers entering a new uncertain historical era.
In this opening scene, Jia Zhangke pointedly demonstrates why he is truly of a new generation, often called the ‘Sixth Generation,’ a term he does not always embrace. Unlike Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang, what interests Jia is not the recent dark past, but the even more uncertain, and more recent, ‘present’ – namely the post-Maoist era he grew up in and which continues today. As a result, in this one film he chronicles the dazzling transformations that occurred in China in the 1980s as a peripatetic troupe makes its way across dust-laden, ochre landscapes. The music changes from Maoist ditties to the beats of 1980s rock. The clothes go from blue Mao suits to blue jeans. The lights go from unadorned stage lighting to garish, flashing colours. Everything changes, and the people change along with them. The problem is that they do not know exactly who or what they should be, since nothing seems to ever settle down.
What is most remarkable about Jia’s film is its decided lack of moralizing and sermonizing. He views the world, rendering it in exacting detail, and says it is what it is and nothing more. Of all film-makers alive today, Jia Zhangke is closest to the spirit of Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose decisive influence Jia has always openly embraced. This is moreover a film with minimal editing, and it does have a number of memorable, static long takes, including a penultimate shot of a domestic setting accented by a boiling tea kettle in the foreground, a shot that lingers in the mind for its vivid ordinariness.
But Platform follows the spirit of Hou, not the literal letter. Jia here makes a film of his time and his place, just as Hou has done for Taiwan. While those of the generation before him, most of all Zhang Yimou, have now found refuge in an increasingly fantastical, bombastic and remote historical past, Jia here shows a decided commitment to peer at the world before him without the usual judgments expected of a film-maker of his stature.
For this stance he was cast a wary eye by the Chinese government, which did not support this film in any way. (It was made instead with Japanese, French and Hong Kong money.) Yet Platform won the top prize at Nantes and the Netpac award at Venice. By the decade’s end, a poll by the Toronto International Film Festival ranked Platform the second best film of the decade for the entire world. If there was ever a film that indelibly shows the extent of China’s changes, this film is it. Platform best represents a new cinematic vision that has emerged in China, without the shrouds of melodrama or the dazzle of historical pageantry. Clearly Jia Zhangke at this early date has already come well into his own.
Author of this review: James Udden