For almost three decades, filmmaker Jia Zhangke has used his distinctive and arresting brand of cinema to ruminate on the myriad changes that characterize life in modern China, especially the transformations that have shuddered through the nation’s landscape and social fabric. Yet he has not typically articulated strident arguments regarding the rightness or desirability of those changes, even early in his career, when he was working without the Chinese government’s support or approval. Indeed, Jia’s works are often compelling precisely because they do not have a sharply defined thesis. One gets the impression that he is using cinema’s poetic, multi-sensory qualities for contemplative purposes, mulling over questions that would be challenging to articulate in any other medium. Even when he delivers a relatively straightforward narrative feature – as he did in his bittersweet romantic crime drama, Ash Is Purest White (2018) – Jia always seems to be engaging intently and pensively with the enigmatic relationship between time, place, and memory.
The filmmaker’s latest feature, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, marks his fourth or fifth foray into documentary – depending how one parses his fascinating docu-fiction hybrid film, 24 City (2008). Much like Jia’s previous nonfiction feature, I Wish I Knew (2010), Swimming consists primarily of people describing their memories. While the former film resolved into an elegiac ode to the city of Shanghai – its past, present, and alternate cinematic lives – the director’s new film is much more elliptical. It begins in Jia’s home province of Shanxi, amid the fields of a storied farming collective celebrated both for its diligent civic spirit and as the unlikely setting for an annual literary festival. Here Jia trains his camera on the craggy faces of old-timers who reminisce about the village’s early days and its connection to local writer Ma Feng. It was Ma’s modest literary success that appears to have led to the establishment of the festival, which every year draws a flock of esteemed contemporary writers, particularly those with an interest in rural or provincial life.
Jia provides a brief look at this annual event – including the vibrant regional opera performances – before shifting laterally and sharpening his focus on one of the attendees, acclaimed author Jia Pingwa. (No relation, apparently, although the writer also hails from Shanxi.) Here Swimming settles into its groove, as a relaxed Jia Pingwa relates agreeably rambling anecdotes about his life, including his early interest in writing and painting, as well as the contentious family history that haunted his steps for several years. The film eventually moves on to Yu Hua, an avant-garde writer who speaks self-effacingly of his romantic naivete and his formative experiences breaking into the Shanghai literary scene. Finally, Swimming concludes with Liang Hong, a scholar-turned-author whose work combines elements of the personal essay and the sociological study. Among the three main writers featured in the film, Liang offers the most unabashedly poignant remembrances, and she becomes visibly emotional when discussing her mother’s death, her father’s remarriage, and her relationships with her siblings.
Given that much of the film consists of extended talking-head sequences, Swimming could easily have slipped into an unfortunate aesthetic inertness. However, director Jia bestows these scenes with a gentle visual energy by means of a few shrewd, low-key techniques: changing up the setting mid-interview; cutting back and forth between different angles; slowly panning, tilting, and zooming; and shooting with a shallow depth of field that allows him to linger artfully on nearby details. (Such as the spools of brightly colored thread in the seamstress’ shop where Liang holds forth.)
More obviously, Jia liberally intercuts the film’s interviews with observational footage depicting daily life in present-day Shanxi and beyond: workers harvesting ripe, golden wheat by hand; old men playing cards and chain-smoking; teenagers absorbed in their phones during a train journey. Some of this material reflects the stories recounted by the interviewed writers, as if Jia is perusing his surroundings for contemporary echoes of his subjects’ memories. Other footage is more inscrutable, such as an early scene in which elderly citizens eagerly but calmly queue up in a dining hall for bowls of soup. (Jia later discovers a visual rhyme in a school cafeteria where adolescent girls wolf down their lunch between classes.) A few shots suggest intriguing stories that exist just outside the frame: a woman scrutinizing a cockatiel for sale at a vendor’s stall; travelers standing forlornly with their luggage outside a terminal; townsfolk warily inspecting the grainy faces on a police wanted poster.
Swimming is divided into short chapters of unequal length, with terse on-screen titles that tend toward the bluntly descriptive (“Journeys,” “Harvest,” “Father”). Although the inter-chapter pauses do not overly disrupt the film’s pleasantly lazy flow, this structural conceit does feel somewhat arbitrary and affected. Jia’s documentary works best when it’s allowed to unspool according to the mellow logic of a freewheeling conversation with smart, thoughtful people. Which is exactly what the film is, in its way: All three of Jia’s principal subjects are storytellers, after all, and they have a knack for transforming their personal history into an engaging and resonant window into the past. It’s a testament to their talents and the filmmaker’s that Swimming manages to be so involving, even if (like this writer) the viewer has exactly zero knowledge of contemporary Chinese literature.
That said, it can sometimes be difficult to spot a thematic handhold amid all the reminiscing. While Jia’s films generally benefit from their slippery nature, the director’s latest feature is likely too hazy and elastic in its ambitions to endure as one of his more memorable efforts. Despite its superficially narrow focus on three specific authors, Swimming is not especially concerned with the role of rural literature in 21st-century China, but instead with more expansive ideas about how societies use storytelling to understand a world that is eternally in flux. All three writers touch on the ways that their humble beginnings shaped their work, and how they eventually found insight and inspiration by looking backwards. At the center of the film is the notion that all artists eventually come home (at least metaphorically) to sift through the soil that birthed them in search of deeper, universal truths. It’s a concept that clearly resonates with Jia, who has long regarded his native Shanxi as a fertile microcosm for allusive stories about modern life. Perhaps this is the reason Swimming finds the filmmaker in a relatively sincere mode after the overtly self-referential Ash Is Purest White. Still, Jia can’t resist a callback here and there, such as an anecdote about a hepatitis diagnosis that echoes a plot point in Unknown Pleasures (2002). Nor does he forgo the occasional wry visual joke: Blink and you’ll miss the little girl whose pink hoodie declares, “WELCOME TO CINEMA.”
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue will screen nightly at 7:30 p.m. at the Webster University Film Series from Sept. 10-12.