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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Four and Twenty Tailors
by Donald Levit

Earlier films of Jia Zhang-ke are available in his homeland only on pirated DVDs. Glacially paced and lacking causal progression, they and the works since intrigue at the same time that they bore, and Useless/Inutile is cut from the same cloth. The frequent New York Film Festival invitee accompanied his movie, and, through a translator, indicated this is the second, after East/Dong, in a projected triptych on the endangered status of artists in industrial superpower China.

In the rampant adapted capitalism and hence consumerism of the country since the late 1980s, non-commercial creators and intellectuals are threatened with marginalization and loss of public presence. So, another fly in Beijing’s ointment, “I try to make their voices heard again.” Not relying on outside narrational guidance for the eighty minutes, the boyish director/co-photographer uses as his template three facets of the world of, not really fashion, but clothing in the large sense; or not clothing per se, either, but the ways in which it is made, how such methods affect both producers and users, and, in one case, the philosophy behind the process.

Philosopher William James listed clothes first among the possessions that define man’s Self, Mark Twain remarked that they actually do “make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society,” while avant-garde designer Ma Ke’s “philosophy parallels [my own] in the arts as checks and balances against the commercially useful.”

Indeed, the title itself is direct translation of “Wu Yong,” the line put out by that young designer against fashion, a rebel against both highfalutin name designer shops (pictured briefly) and cheaper ware mass-produced without soul by, for example, the Guangzhou née Canton 5th Industrial Zone assembly line which occupies the documentary’s first third. At such latter factories, workers eat cheerless meals in water-spattered cafeterias beside a bare company health clinic treating eye inflammations, digestive upsets, and stress with equal cursoriness.

Movies like his “can find a house audience but by Hollywood are considered useless.” Aside from the title share, the young stylist and the thirty-seven-year-old filmmaker have in common what can be viewed as an organic theory of composition.

His films, that is, develop not so much chronologically or causally, as by an inner logic that one either accepts or not. “My narratives [i.e., fictions] seem like documentaries to me, and some of my documentaries seem like narrative films.” Thus, the factory scenes appear to devolve from the stupendous tracking shot that initiates Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, but the true unity lies in the produced, as distinct from patched up, clothing and the factory workers’ country origins in the final third’s depressed Shanxi Province (Jia’s birthplace and the setting for earlier fictions like Platform). “Trying to get at the truth in what may seem to be narrative elements,” the filmmaker denied any scripting, such as in the hesitant words of a tailor-turned-miner and his shy wife, where the camera only closes in for “mutual understanding at a comfortable distance [when] the subject becomes more accepting and forgets I’m there.”

Concerned, too, with distance, in this case the growing gap separating manufacturer from customer, Ma is accompanied by her dogs, caught in the rural studio to which she transferred her operation and where her clothing is hand-loomed then buried in earth to allow for organic-forces finishing. Soon she is in couture capital Paris, where her brand is applauded during Autumn/Winter Fashion Week. To an amateur eye resembling dun rugs, tents, bearskins or fishnets, on illuminated cubes the styles wrap motionless models who look like those monochrome buskers who hold a statue pose for passersby; and to a cynic, the gap remains no less enormous between weaver and wearer.

Relief and contrast are furnished in a couple frames of the bored blue-jeaned models waiting to be dressed, and a small spot of humor in the older redheaded one who motherhens them and remarks on the unbearable heaviness of bearing Wu Yong creations. A final contrast to factory rows and Paris sophisticates are the blackfaced miners, fiercely smoking cigarettes or sponging coal dust from hands and faces attached to naked white torsos. These strikingly filmed men, however, do seem extraneous alongside the tailors they frequent for repairs, men and women with foot-pedal sewing machines in villages of deadly dullness.

Jia’s works comment on the old China and on the new face it rushes to assume. The love and craft that go into them are apparent, but exactly what he is saying, is not. As with haute couture or Wu Yong, it takes an acquired taste. 

(Released by Xstream Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)

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