After the Cultural Revolution
"Comatose" is the operative word here. It applies both to the movie Platform (Zhantai) and its viewers. At the screening I attended, reviewers and other invitees drifted out one at a time, to the bathroom or for refreshments or to refresh themselves in the cold air before plunging in again. Unable to find distribution, for three years Jia Zhang-ke’s second feature did the festival circuit and won awards named after animals and such. Now, shorn of forty-three minutes, it’s still unwieldy at a-hundred-fifty-five.
And yet . . .
While still by no stretch commercially viable, this Chinese-Japanese-French indie (done without official state permission), does raise interesting points for comparison and is worth a look if only for the cultural conditioning, and conditions, it unconsciously depicts.
Most foreign films fail to reach these shores, and those that survive the journey are normally hothouse "art cinema" specialties, martial-arts clones or relatively expensive à l’américaine. The serpentine family sagas which spellbind Indian audiences are for domestic consumption only, as are most of Mexico’s oaters, Japanese sci-fi, Italian comedies or Turkish social melodramas, which we would not, could not, sit through or comprehend. But, often technically amateurish and under-budgeted, such works do speak for other cultures, standards and values, and something can be learned from them.
Platform's mise-en-scene is reminiscent of Spain’s dominant central meseta not many years ago, in the dry landscapes, deadly dull villages, dust everywhere and cold indoors and out, tawny peeling walls, arched brick architecture, incessant background noise, cigarette smoke and stripped, bare life. The story line here is picaresque in that progression is chronological, like calendar pages, and not at all causal, where cutting one scene or thread will collapse the whole like an unraveling sweater. As the amateur Peasant Culture Group travels rural Shanxi province putting on excruciating educational party-line drama, only brief road shots and name subtitles indicate that one place has been left and another entered.
With Chairman Mao’s death in September 1976 and the Gang of Four trial, the Cultural Revolution dies as well. Change is in the air, as tiny seeds of capitalism and consumerism sprout – a cheap boom box from the city, bell-bottom trousers, electricity for a town – and the Deng government allows a first, limited access to U.S. films and pop music from Hong Kong and Nationalist Taiwan. ("Platform" refers, not to a stage, but a Number One pop song.) Along with de facto separation of married couples, divorce and abortion in place of birth control, some country girls have their hair curled and smoke in public.
In tune with the times, the troupe reinvents itself with semi-private ownership, pseudo-Western clothes, awful rock music and a new Tom Wolfe-ish name as the All-Star ‘n’ Breakdance Electronic Band, featuring the moody, stretch-panted Pink Sisters "just back from the U.S."
Is this all somewhat cruel tongue-in-cheek? One would like to think so, but I fear it’s deadly earnest. The film centers around bespectacled, twenty-four-year-old chain-smoking lead performer Ciu Minliang (Hong Wei Wang) and his standoffish affair with conservative pigtailed member Ruijian (Tao Zhao). To a lesser extent, it also deals with an affair between two others of the group, Zhang Jun (Jing Dong Liang)and the more rebellious Zhong Pin (Tian Yi Yang).
Why does watching this film become so painful? Perhaps it’s because of the subtitles or the non-professional actors – who certainly seem adequate – or, as I choose to believe, the cultural-social difference between our graphic overkill West and a more reserved (to us) Eastern ethos. Unfortunately, Platform’s dialogue comes across so laconically flat, the joys so simple and the emotions so muted, it’s a difficult film for American moviegoers to appreciate.
In endless short takes, nothing but nothing happens, though crises big and small occasionally threaten and give promise. A train passes over a bridge; an illiterate miner signs away his rights; a couple is detained briefly for cohabitation; a father opens his shop on a highway and does not return home – but nothings changes, really, and the group’s last stop is, once again, full circle, dusty Fenyang village.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. For all its vaunted, feared muscle and potential, China, at least vast rural China as depicted in Platform, is a consummately boring, bored affair. Not necessarily life’s drudgery, but life itself is the culprit. How well this film mirrors that sad truth, as art imitates life.
(Released by Celluloid Dreams; not rated by MPAA.)