China’s relentless march for progress inspires Jia Zhang-ke’s contemplative Competition entry  

Caught By The Tides

Source: Cannes

‘Caught By The Tides’

Dir. Jia Zhang-ke. China. 2024. 111 mins.

An expression of his career-long preoccupations, Jia Zhang-ke’s odyssey through China since the turn of the century has an epic sense within a homespun feel. The blend of doc and fiction in Caught By The Tides veers strongly towards the former, with Jia’s wife and muse Zhao Tao playing a silent character whose quest sees her travel through a background of the overwhelming upheaval experienced by the country during that timeframe.

A summation of Jia’s life’s work to date, and of a country’s relentless march forward

The anger of Jia’s early years, of even a decade ago when A Touch Of Sin won the Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2013, has folded itself into a potent blend of regret and wonder at what has happened to his place of birth, to his people. Not an easy entry point to Jia’s work, Caught By The Tides will nonetheless appeal strongly to fans of this ‘Sixth Generation’ director as a summation of his life’s work to date, and of a country’s relentless march forward. The sense of loss is as keenly felt as an expressive soundtrack which draws heavily on Chinese music of the time, all part of a bygone era whose pace of decline took everyone by surprise.

Drawing on characters and footage first shot for Unknown Pleasures in 2002 – a film which also competed at Cannes – Caught By The Tides returns Jia to the industrial city of Datong in Northern Shanxi and the character of Qiaoqiao (Zhao Tao), who also appeared in Ash Is The Purest White. Unknown Pleasures was the director’s third film, after Xiao Wu and Platform; some of the first in China to capture a restless younger generation caught between the collectivist past and an lawless free-market future. But already, it looks like a snapshot of a vanished world, which Jia revisits on gnarly DV footage he shot at the time. Datong today could be two centuries, not just two decades, advanced from these original shots.

There is a very heavy heart too, that accompanies images of a truly vanished world – the cities, towns and villages of the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges, submerged and destroyed in what could be called either a high-tide of progress or a great act of national self-sabotage. It’s all part of Qiaoqiao’s odyssey, which cuts through Jia’s past work as the actor who plays her cuts through his own life. It’s the past and the present; the personal and the professional for the director and co-screenwriter – although the screenplay is more of an assembly than a written plot. 

The film starts at the dawn of the millennium, in documentary footage shot in Datong, where a group of women warm each other with traditional song. They’re loosely associated with a hall that offers tea dances and simple singing to retired factory workers. The owner explains the economics of the hall, and they are of an almost medieval simplicity. The women pay him (a tiny amount) to sing national anthems and opera; the retired men pay them (a tiny amount) to listen to it. Cultural barter in a feudal society

We first see Qiaoqiao, brash and young, singing and dancing in a wig, bustling her way around the documentary footage in Datong, and it’s almost a thrill to see Jia’s early work coming back to life again. Energetic and enigmatic, she scrabbles together a living – she’s a hustler. She has a romantic entanglement with Brother Bin (Li Zhubin), although it’s more inferred than stated. He moves on from Datong in search of a better life, and Qiaoqiao follows him, on a silent odyssey that will see her roam the length of the country, and through a time that was unimaginable back in 2001 when Datong was celebrating the 2008 Olympics being awarded to China. After all, 2001 is a good marker for the start of the relentless modernisation that takes China to its unrecognisable present.

Since Mountains May Depart, in 2015, and Ash in 2018, Jia’s films have tended to encompass epic journeys for their protagonists.  Perhaps this is the third in that trilogy, much as Unknown Pleasures wrapped his first trio of works. If so, it’s less brash, less attention-seeking – Qiaoqiao’s silence draws you in, and nobody here tells the viewer anything. You just watch as a woman leaves a town where there’s barely a phone, to come back some years later and befriend a robot. As Covid hits and Brother Bin collapses under the weight of his ambition, Jia asks: How much have we lost? Was it worth it? He has no answers. The only way is forward.

Production companies: Xstream Pictures

International sales: MK2, Alya Belgaroui, mk2 Films

Producers: Casper Liang Jiayan, Shozo Ichiyama

Screenplay: Jia Zhang-ke, Wan Jiahuan

Cinematography:  Yu Lik-wai, Eric Gautier

Production design: Ye Quisen, Liu Qiang, Liu Weixin, Liang Jingdong

Editing: Yang Chao, Lin Xudong, Matthieu Laclau

Music: Lim Giong

Main cast: Zhao Tao, Li Zhubin, Pan Jialin, Lan Zhou