Set in Fenyang, Shanxi Province, the film focuses on a group of amateur theatre troupe performers whose fate mirrors that of the general population in China as massive socio-economic ... See full summary »
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Set in Fenyang, Shanxi Province, the film focuses on a group of amateur theatre troupe performers whose fate mirrors that of the general population in China as massive socio-economic changes sweep across the mainland. The film commences in 1979 with the troupe performing numbers idolizing Mao Zedong, ending in the '80s when the shows reflect the strong Western influences pervading China, covering a decade in which China saw tremendous changes. Written by
L.H. Wong <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"Zhantai" has so many of the features I have admired from recent Oriental masterworks such as " A Brighter Summer Day", "Eureka" and "City of Sadness" that I will have to find some justification for considering it ultimately so much less satisfying. Like these others it succeeds in creating a complete world of its own that, because it is so remote from Western experience, exerts a fascination that is hard to forget. We are in Fenyang a small town somewhere West of Beijing, where flat plains give way to craggy, uninviting mountains. The time is the early 1980s when strict Maoist ideology was about to give way to a period of consumer liberalisation. A group of young actor-singer- dancers employed by the state to remind provincial audiences of the principles of Mao through the medium of stage entertainment are about to see their world fall victim to the progress of private enterprise, when no longer needed for government propaganda. What was once a captive audience turns fickle, often rejecting outright the new form of pop culture they are offered. The irony is that progress in this context brings disillusionment resulting in a group of friends drifting away from their close initial camaraderie. By the time the film ends their future looks far from confident. Both thematically and atmospherically "Zhantai" has the potential for great cinema. Why then after two viewings in quick succession do I find its sense of communication so elusive and uninvolving? The answer must lie in the way the director seems to distant his characters from their audience. We never get closer to them than a middle shot. In a film where the close-up is as rigorously excluded from cinematic grammar as camera movement from the later work of Ozu, the characters' everyday lives seem to be presentad as an extension of their existance on stage to the extent that we are often left to guess at their feelings and emotions. I have written before of how fascinated I am to respond to the demands of directors such as Edward Yang and Hou Xiaoxian to connect with characters and situations when given the barest information. Director Jia Zhangke is obviously aiming at their oblique narrative style but somehow gives so little that by the end I felt I knew much more about the topography of Fenyang than of the characters that live there. For a film about the effect of historical change on individuals to be completely successful it needs to be the other way round.
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