Dir. Jia Zhang-Ke. China , 2007. 84mins.
Perennial Venice favourite Jia Zhang-Ke is back with a documentary whose title could invite all manner of cheap shots. But it also happens to be the name of a new, and highly successful, Chinese fashion brand. The second part in a trilogy dedicated to artists, launched last year in Venice with Dong (painter Li Xiaodong features), the main inspiration of this new film is fashion designer Ma Ke, whose Paris show was enthusiastically acclaimed by the relevant industry press earlier this year.
Winner of the Horizons documentary prize in Venice, Useless is divided into three practically separate sections, in which the second is dedicated to a long Ma Ke interview and the coverage of her show, Jia went one step further in his film to reflect on the industrialized landscape of China, on the use of clothes and their production and the people behind it. Though at times painfully slow and fairly loosely cut together (in what may have been a bit of a rush job to meet the Venice deadline), Useless is however superbly shot by Jia's regular cameraman Yu Likwai (a film director in his own right) and by Jia himself. It should not be overlooked by any self respecting festival.
The basic idea explored here is that the process of individuals becoming disassociated from the product they manufacture. In the film's first section the camera wanders through Canton sweatshops, with long lines of workers, men and women, at their sewing machines, churning out anonymous items for anonymous customers. The most astounding achievement here is the incredibly sensitive study of faces apparently indifferent to the camera, which however carefully avoids ever crowding them.
The second part, in which Ma Ke talks about the concept behind the 'Wu Yong' (in English it means 'Useless' or 'Pointless') brand and then goes on to present the Paris show, is the more conventional of the three sections. Ma Ke explains the reason for choosing the name for the brand ('in today's China, spiritual values are considered useless'), her interview inter-cut with the preparation for the exhibition at the Joyce Palais Royal.
The third part goes back to Jia's native province, Shanxi, and looks at the life of the miners there and the minuscule shops where they go to fix their clothes. The least coherent of the three, this section contains however some breathtaking still life images, offering colour compositions which sometimes raise the suspicion that a brush has been applied here and there, arranging the reality to the director's satisfaction before the shots were filmed. No wonder Jia uses at times the term 'arranged documentary'.
Given the incredibly slow pace of the film, the lack of narration nor to get close to any of the persons he looks at, for fear of the camera interfering with reality as it is (Ma Ke is the only person interviewed on camera), Jia's film looks ultimately as a sort of impressionistic creation, which needs to be approached like a large painting whose various components are to be gazed upon at leisure.
A handsome showpiece, it could, sooner or later reach those secluded corners of modern museums, reserved for artists whose works may not hang on their walls, but nevertheless are out of place anywhere else.
Xstream Pictures (HK)
Mixmind Art & Design Co
China Film Assn
Memento Films, Paris