Over the last decade, Jia Zhangke, the Chinese director whose films have charted his homeland’s rapid and often rough social change from imperialism to communism to a hybrid form of consumer capitalism, has unexpectedly been given state approval despite the difficulties he had with censors earlier in his career. Pivoting to crime films, Jia ostensibly “sold out” at first glance until one digs under the surface of movies like A Touch of Sin to find an undiluted interest in exploring China’s everchanging social landscape. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue finds the director returning to nonfiction, in this case interviewing a number of authors who lived and wrote from the postwar period under Mao to the present to give a sense of how perspectives have changed across artistic generations.

Though Jia occasionally uses recitations of the authors’ actual prose to give some sense of their work, he mostly gives an impression of their work through interviews that reveal their philosophies. For Ma Feng (1922-2004), this takes the form of talking heads with his daughter and some of the author’s few living friends and compatriots, who discuss how the devout communist made as much of a tangible community impact as an artistic one. As much attention is given to his work on projects like de-alkalizing the water supply as his pro-state literature, and one is left with a sunny view of art and activism entwining. But Jia quickly contrasts that with the story of Jia Pingwa, whose own blunter literature stems from the trauma left from his hellish experiences during China’s anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution, which imprisoned his father and nearly starved his family.

Because Jia has long blended nonfiction and narrative techniques, he shows a deft hand in subtly aestheticizing what might otherwise have been a functional series of talking head testimonials. Consider how he and cinematographer Yu Lik-wai frame the early interviewees who discuss Ma Feng’s legacy; the camera glides over faces and lets in a tremendous amount of light to bathe images in incandescent white. This serene beauty reflects the subjects’ wistful memories of Ma’s positive impact on their rural communities, as well as the uplifting content of his socially optimistic literature. Compare that to the unromantic, mostly static images that capture Jia Pingwa in shots that alternate straight ahead close-ups that frame the author as if in an interrogation or from the adjacent doorway, peering in like a rat who might inform on him. Where Jia shot interviews about Ma in bright, open spaces, Pingwa is often situated in his cramped study, which is densely packed with books and art as if where the author hides his material from discovery.

Jia’s small flourishes extend to the many moments of connective tissues that bridge interviews and give a wider view of the countryside provinces he peripherally profiles, as well as the march of time. Old footage of a Shanxi community map from 1979 that uses functional, realist art to lay out the town, while a cut to the same display in the present day finds that image replaced with a more fanciful, traditionally inspired painting in which the village’s rolling hills are done in bright watercolors with dragons and other adornments added for aesthetic pleasure. That faux-classical painting aligns with a general revival of nationalist artistic traditions shown in various festivals, ranging from traditional opera to various ceremonies, and Jia tacitly notes how the Cultural Revolution that sought to obliterate China’s past to build a new mindset has given way to state media that actively draws from the country’s art history to create a new form of propaganda. It’s a reminder that all art is political or can be politicized.

The final two major subjects of the doc find Jia profiling authors whose careers began in the wake of the Gang of Four’s arrest and the subsequent thaw of domestic tensions. Yu Hua is the most entertaining of the authors, a born raconteur who tells captivating stories of his youthful hustle at getting a break at writing. Jia interviews Yu at a café and lets the ambient noise of passing foot and car traffic occasionally roar over the soundtrack in a nod to the author being a man of the people with a Hemingway vibe. Yu’s plucky, impish quality is a far cry from Ma’s true believer zealotry and Jia Pingwa’s cagey solemnity, and the repeated moments of pedestrians casually strolling past in the background of his talking heads hints at the more open, less paranoid social atmosphere in which he grew up.

The final subject is Liang Hong, whose intimate character portraits match interviews focused less on the social changes she experienced than her intimate memories of her sick mother and her later difficulty in accepting her widower father finding love again. Liang is perhaps the closest in spirit to Jia himself, revealing much about the social conditions of her life from focusing minutely on the human characteristics of her upbringing and her changing attitudes toward family and her work, noting that it was through bringing her father with her on a book tour that she reconciled with him and managed to repair their relationship. And in the quiet denouement, the film ends with Liang’s son, born in Henan but raised in the big city, struggling to remember his family’s local dialect. If the teenager at first seems blithe compared to his mother, mentioning his love of TV and video games, his reflective admissions of the questions he wished he could ask his deceased grandfather betray an ongoing curiosity for empathy and humanity even in the supposedly self-absorbed online generation.

Jia, like the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, has created a body of work that functions as a living history of his homeland through the tumult of the 20th century and into the modern globalized landscape. The longstanding porousness between Jia’s narrative and nonfiction makes his documentaries equally vital stepping stones in this filmography, so that Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, like each new Jia film, acts as much as a culmination of his career to date as a new and distinct story. Baked into the documentary is argument that even the most ostensibly personal Chinese art acts as a testament to the sweeping changes that have shaped and continue to reshape the country, and all art, whether made for propaganda or commercial success, offers the only real chance to understand the massive social forces that otherwise can scarcely be conceived.

Pivoting from his recent string of genre movies, China’s master cinematic chronicler of modern history gets back to his roots with the strongest documentary of his career to date.
85 %
Quietly transportive
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