Two unemployed slackers, neither with job prospects nor motivation, hang out in sheltered town in China trying to make sense of their aimless and uncertain futures. As youths, they struggle for individual freedom and the social responsibility that comes along with it. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
Unknown Pleasures is the first Jia Zhang Ke film that I have seen and it is excellent. The setting is a town in the north of China, but it could be anywhere in the developing world - India, Argentina or South Africa, for example - where neo liberal economic policies have benefitted the urban elite, but created dislocation for millions of others. The director undoubtedly has a deep social conscience.
The film focuses on several young people, members of China's "new new" generation. As the films progresses, we see what the new world order offers them - US currency, American pop culture, the 2008 Olympics, new super highways - contrasted with the reality - few opportunities for young people, laid off state factory workers and a general degradation of moral values. The message is clear: the new world order offers common people everything in return for giving up traditional ways of life, but actually delivers little of substance. As Bin Bin puts it when he finds out that his girlfriend is going to Beijing to study international trade: "WTO is nothing. Just a trick to make some cash."
The social realist style - it has a bit of a documentary look to it - and the pop song which the film is named after and which features prominently in it (Ren Xiao Yao - the lyrics speak about youth alienation, particularly a desire for freedom and pleasure) also provide a cutting edge look and feel. The song is emotive and will strike a chord with those who like explorations of youth alienation.
However, the film, as befits the political and artistic climate in China, is very subtle and understated, and may escape those who have little knowledge of current affairs in China or an insensitivity to the economic and social dislocation that is taking place outside the big cities (this is not a good date movie for the corporate Western expat and his urban Chinese girlfriend who measure progress by the number of new condos and Western restaurants in Shanghai).
This is great indie filmmaking, though, and I would particularly recommend it to socially and politically aware twenty and thirtysomethings who like artistic expression that is intelligent, socially conscientious and cutting edge.
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