Dir: Jia Zhang-Ke. China 2002. 113 mins. Competition
A film about teenage aimlessness that evokes its subject only too well, the third feature by Jia Zhang-Ke, director of Xiao Wu and Platform, is a loose, funky digital venture that undoubtedly feels as if it captures the authentic beat of contemporary Chinese life. But its narrative leisureliness, occasional obscurities and specific references to the modern Chinese scene finally make it a frustrating experience. Where Jia's first two films offered the freshness of a unvarnished realist view of China, Unknown Pleasures feels like more of the same, executed with less discipline, and its commercial prospects will be considerably limited.
The locale is Datong, a town in Northern China, close to Mongolia, soon to be connected to Beijing by a new highway. The main protagonists are two teenage slackers, unemployed young guys with a who-cares attitude and a cigarette forever perched on their lips. The more conventional of the two is Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei), who likes to hang out with his prim girlfriend, a future student of international trade, watching videos and holding hands on the sofa. His mother is convinced that the army is his only possible future, and half-heartedly he goes along with her plans. His friend Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) is a fashion-conscious hipster who takes a fancy to dancer, model (and, it appears, part-time hooker) Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), a skittish thing who takes the butterfly as her chosen emblem, and who is first seen wowing the crowd at auditions to promote Mongolian King Liquor. But Qiao Qiao is under the protection of a gangster-loanshark boyfriend with links to the margins of the entertainment world, who is also her former gym teacher (they were thrown out of school together).
The film is more about mood than event, with characters drifting from one locale to another, the two boys with unfailingly bored expressions, while Qiao Qiao gets increasingly skittish and frazzled throughout. Director Jiaand cinematographer Yu Lik Wai use digital video to great effect, shooting long takes and allowing maximum access to the mundane interiors and street scenes of an ordinary provincial town. This is a world where the old China still subsists - the mobster is having an affair with a traditional opera singer - but where it is rapidly being replaced by Western imagery and values. The kids watch MTV-style music videos, go to discos, and dream of Hollywood movies: in one of the film's several self-consciously cinephile moments, Xiao Ji invokes an American movie immediately recognisable as Pulp Fiction, before we cut to a disco where he and Qiao Qiao reenact John Travolta's and Uma Thurman's dance moves from that film.
One of the problems of Unknown Pleasures is that it achieves an uneasy balance between such self-consciousness on one hand, and on the other, a hard realism, bordering on state-of-the-nation reportage. The film aims for something like the mood of early Godard, with the cigarette-loving boys acting out their Belmondo tough-guy roles, while the evocation of showbiz's mundane fringes is reminiscent of Masculin Féminin. Jia makes several references to his own work. Xiao Wu, the petty criminal lead character of his first film Xiao Wu, reappears here, in one scene peddling DVDs, but proves unable to supply Bin Bin with Xiao Wu itself, Jia's follow-up Platform or DoP Yu Lik Wai's own feature as director Love Will Tear Us Apart.
This jokiness makes an awkward distraction from the film's very direct relationship to current Chinese reality, with several specific references to events of the year 2001 - notably, Beijing's selection as host city of the 2008 summer Olympics, the arrest of a bank robber in Southern China, China's entry into the World Trade Organisation and the construction of the Dtaong-Beijing highway. This last plays a symbolic role in the film's penultimate sequence, as Xiao Ji's bike breaks down in the rain - a perhaps a too-explicit image of China's youth running on empty en route to an uncertain future.
The film's one truly commanding performance is by Zhao Tao as the mercurial, tormented teen queen, acting like a star but disguising her vulnerability under a selection of wigs. When she is on screen, her energy lifts the film out of the sulky mood created by the two male leads, especially trendily-coiffed Xiao Ji, a poseur pin-up whose chic impassivity kills the film's emotional potential stone dead.
The film's English title, nothing to do with the Joy Division album, is the name of a dance performed by Qiao Qiao, and has to do with the director's observation about new Chinese society's despairing hedonism. The Chinese title, however, means "free of all constraints" and is taken from the writings of the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzhi. Taken as the name of a Chinese karaoke hit of 2001, Qiao Qiao uses it as her thrill-seeking motto. Unknown Pleasures very quickly captures the sense of a lost generation, and its sharp DV photography gives a vivid picture of street life in a China increasingly opening up to the lure of the dollar. But the film's narcissistic moodiness and hard-to-swallow longueurs mean that the viewer is likely to lose patience long after Jia has made his point. However, one piece of dialogue - "Art sets the stage, let economy perform on it" - sticks in the mind, not so much for what it says about new Chinese culture, but as a pretty neat summation of Cannes itself.
Prod cos: Office Kitano, Lumen Films, E-Pictures, Hu Tong Communications
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Prods: Shozo Ichiyama, Li Kit-ming
Scr: Jia Zhang-Ke
Cinematography: Yu Lik Wai
Ed: Chow Keung
Prod des: Liang Jiang Dong
Main cast: Zhao Tao, Zhao Wei Wei, Wu Qiong, Zhou Qing Feng, Wang Hong Wei