Ranking the Jia Zhangke Films

Jia Zhangke makes some of the most beautiful films in the world about being alive in this world. You absolutely should seek them out.

9. 24 City [2008]

More interesting than especially entertaining, the part documentary/part fiction film concept here was less compelling than the much-celebrated Still Life. Zhangke of course manages to convey his deep love of people in the face of time and “progress” as ever, but the structure simply was just not as entertaining as he normally is able to do. Perhaps in time, I will connect with it more.


8. Xiao Wu [1998]

“The old is going but where is the new?”

Jia Zhangke’s first feature length film, like much of his later work, explores the idea of “progress” and what it actually means for the people. When things are dire or need of improvement, we often gravitate towards the promise or the idea of change. But what does this change accomplish? What is the change for? Is it change for change’s sake? What defines progress? Why are we encouraged to just go along with it? Who is really benefitting?


7. Still Life [2006]

The film beautifully captures just how much the march of time and “progress” just steamroll everyday people. When not literally killing them with total disregard, the “progress” of nations often just sucks the souls out of people as they are ground up just in order to survive long enough. Survive long enough for what? That is the unanswered question of the film. What are we doing this all for? The film dances around some answers, and the main character certainly gives himself a North Star to guide him at the end. The film does not allow the viewer to romanticize that decision in any way.


6. Unknown Pleasures [2002]

“…we should do what feels good.”

Being young is fucking annoying and young people are fucking annoying. While Jia Zhangke tells stories that are very much connected to their specific setting, he is also always engaging in universal ideas about what it means to be alive. The curse of being young is that you are theoretically capable of doing so much but it is very natural for a sense of aimlessness to set in. And you just have no idea what to do with yourself, and you just steadily become more and more self-involved until you finally snap out of it or go over the edge. Zhangke empathetically captures all of that here.


5. Platform [2000]

In a beautiful follow-up to his debut picture, Zhangke once again dives into many of the same questions in a new way. The big ideas about progress, change, and individuality are all explored only with the wrinkle about how these things are connected to artistry. How do the various systems of the world hold back artists? What is the role of the artist in the world? How much is owed to other people vs. how much is owed to themselves? What I love about Zhangke films is how much they are about asking questions and make you reflect on yourself and the world around you. He essentially mastered that ability right from the start of his career.


4. The World [2004]

No one really captures young aimlessness quite like Jia Zhangke. The main characters are stuck in that kind of job you get in your twenties when you need to make some money but don’t have anything better on the horizon – they are working at a theme park. It’s the type of maddening job that makes your eyes drift around and wonder if your life could be better. For young Chinese people at this time the situation is heightened as China’s political and economic situation changes. Zhangke shows the shallowness of this change by making the theme park one of those places where they build replicas of famous monuments around the world. “See the world without having to leave Beijing. This works thematically so well with the characters, as it highlights how limited one’s options really are in the world.


3. Mountains May Depart [2015]

The most interesting part of this ambitious film is how it captures that tension between generations in families over their values and how the context of each generation and each member of that generation builds to that tension. People are born into a certain set of circumstances, and that status quo is not going to feel right for some or many of them. When the tension arises, it is so hard to understand why your elders seem set in their ways, and it is equally hard to accept that a younger generation cannot be content with the way things are right now. It is so easy to be frustrated with our family’s outlook on the world, and sometimes that frustration is deserved. There is a need to understand how they got there if anything is to come of it. While the film had moments of heavy handedness that did not always feel ideally timed, there is no question that it captured the pain of that tension.


2. A Touch of Sin [2013]

As usual, Zhangke beautifully captures the tension and torture that is created by the world humans have created for themselves, and the exploitation continued by the elites. Zhangke uses four short stories that are thematically intertwined (as opposed to literally). Unlike more trite films, he does not need to directly show how these lives are connected to make his point. Each story features a character pushed to the brink and violence erupts as a result. Violence comes in many forms, and I had never previously seen Zhangke portray so much physical violence. It should come as no surprise that he is quite adept at capturing the pure terror that death can create. There is nothing overly “cinematic” about their deaths. It is clumsy and sudden and shocking. Zhangke in particular focuses hard on the juxtaposition of moments surrounding the violence. One moment, there is no blood and no death. Then the moment passes, and it feels like there is nothing but blood and violence.


1. Ash Is Purest White [2018]

Ash Is Purest White captures a lot of what Jia Zhangke has done so well for so long and also built on the ideas he has frequently explored. The big focus here was on the impact of time on a relationship. The way time can just change people so much that it leads to destroying people we claim to love. While A Touch of Sin expressed much of its emotions through physical violence, Zhangke here puts more emphasis on the emotional violence we are capable of committing. The most heartbreaking moment was when Zhangke showed the main characters – years after their tumultuous relationship – reunited and falling into old dynamics and habits as if nothing ever changed. That just broke me.

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