I probably could enjoy Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes performing the Manhattan phone directory—which might be almost as edifying as this partly fictionalized HBO movie about Doris Duke, the socialite and philanthropist who died in 1993, and Bernard Lafferty, the gay Irishman who became her butler and best friend. Director Bob Balaban, known mainly as an actor, performed wonders with his features Parents (1989) and The Last Good Time (1994); he’s been directing TV ever since, and he does what he can with Hugh Costello’s arch script. 102 min. (JR)
Just as Woody Allen now omits the early What’s Up, Tiger Lily? from his filmography, Japanese director Shohei Imamura might have been insulted by the idea that anyone could prefer this modest farce (1958) to his vastly more ambitious comedy The Profound Desire of the Gods, made a decade later. But its story about the dream life of a henpecked nerd who works at his wife’s Tokyo pharmacy is perfectly suited to the director’s high-spirited vulgarity. The performances of the title pop tune, with its borrowings from the Western alphabet, are especially giddy. Also known as Nishi Ginza Station. In Japanese with subtitles. 52 min. (JR)
This was written for a brochure to accompany a retrospective held by Northwestern University’s Block Cinema in January 2008. Earlier this month, Jia’s latest feature, 24 City, which sounds fascinating, premiered in Cannes.–J.R.
ZHANG KE JIA, POETIC PROPHET
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
What is it about Zhang Ke Jia that makes him the most exciting mainland Chinese filmmaker currently working? It might be oversimplifying matters to describe this writer-director, born in 1970, as a country boy. But the fact that he hails from the small town of Fenyang in northern China’s Shanxi province clearly plays an important role in all his features to date. (I’m less certain about what role it plays in his two recent documentaries, Dong  and Useless .) Like William Faulkner and Alexander Dovzhenko, Jia is a hick avant-gardist in the very best sense–someone whose outsider/minority status enhances both his humanity and his art. Working in long, choreographed takes, and mixing realistic accounts of working-class life with diverse forms of cultural shock and fantasy ranging from animation to SF to rock, he already qualifies as a poetic prophet of the 21st century, and not only for China.
He attended the Beijing Film Academy, where he completed his first film, the one-hour Xiao Shan Going Home (1995). I haven’t seen it, but according to critic Kevin Lee, it’s about a country boy and unemployed cook in Beijing who wants to go home for the Chinese New Year and runs into numerous obstacles, and it utilizes literary intertitles (which also crop up in his last two features). Jia’s identification with his rural hero is apparently underlined in a party sequence where he appears, speaking drunkenly in his semi-incoherent Shanxi dialect. (He can be found doing something similar in the opening sequence of Uncommon Pleasures.) Given that nearly all Chinese films are dubbed into Mandarin, this could be seen as a defiant move, comparable to the direct-sound recording of Taiwanese dialects in the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien, one of Jia’s key influences.
Fenyang is the main setting in Xiao Wu (Pickpocket, 1997)–another eccentric character study named after its leading character—-and his second and most ambitious feature, Platform (2000), an epic following the teenage members of Fenyang’s state-run Peasant Culture Group as they gradually mutate over a decade into the privatized All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band. In fact, Platform was scripted before Xiao Wu but made afterwards because it was far more expensive to finance; like Jia’s subsequent Unknown Pleasures (2002), it was an underground independent film–technically banned, though it circulated in China on pirated video.
Both Unknown Pleasures and In Public (2002)–a half-hour documentary shot on digital video that scouted locations for the feature—-were shot in another small town in Shanxi about to be transformed by capitalism, Datung. And even though Jia returned to Beijing to shoot The World (2004), about alienated workers in a theme park, and went on to the equally spectacular Three Gorges Dam in central China for Still Life (2006), leading characters in both films hail from Shanxi province. So his roots remain, but he continues to grow. And now that he’s officially recognized by the Chinese government, he shoots all his features on digital video.
One of the best and most ambitious features by Shohei Imamura, this farcical fable (1968), set on a tropical island, probably won
Turkish filmmaker Reha Erdem has a feel for the light, shade, colors, and textures of a scenic mountain village, which he shoots gracefully in ‘Scope, often following people along various passageways. He also has a leisurely and not always convincing way of dealing with the troubled lives of three village kids, and his taste for pretentious music and portentous section headings suggest he doesn’t always know when to leave well enough alone. This 2006 feature works better in terms of mood than storytelling. In Turkish with subtitles. 110 min. (JR)