Jia Zhang Ke’s Unknown Pleasures drifts entropically as it chronicles the desultory, unfulfilled lives of young people in a Chinese provincial backwater. Long shots, long takes, natural lighting, flat affect, disjunctive edits, and elliptical narration have almost become cliches of a certain sort of international art cinema. But here, as in his earlier, and equally remarkable Xiao Wu — I still haven’t seen Platform, said to be the best of his films — Jia makes the style really work: not only does it mirror the anomie and hopelessness of the characters (form matching content), but it also performs a subtle yet incisive political critique.
In trading Maoism for capitalism, Jia suggests, China has merely substituted one form of tyranny with another. Instead of the totalitarian frenzy of mass mobilization, contemporary China in Jia’s eyes now offers only random drift and impoverished imaginings; gangsterism and currying favor with the bureaucracy are sometimes capriciously rewarded, but most people find themselves doomed to passivity and empty consumption, even if they are lucky enough not to be victims of social predation. Jia’s style establishes and embodies the topography of such a world.
In one telling moment of Unknown Pleasures, one of the protagonists describes to his girlfriend the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, which he has seen on video, and which for him only signifies the distant allure of a glamor he can never hope to attain. The point is precisely that we never get to see anything like Pulp Fiction in the actual world of Unknown Pleasures. Even when the protagonists plan a bank robbery, there is nothing exuberant or crazy or Tarantinoesquely tongue-in-cheek about it; instead, it just goes stupidly and humiliatingly awry. By the end of the film, the characters have nothing left to lose; but they certainly don’t experience their situation as any sort of freedom or release. Instead, they are trapped in a world in which only money talks, even if there isn’t much that money can buy.