Criterion Prediction #189: Unknown Pleasures, by Alexander Miller
Title: Unknown Pleasures
Director: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Wei Wei Zhao, Qiong Wu, Zhao Tao, Qing Feng Zhou
Synopsis: Xiao Ji (Wu) and Bin Bin (Wei Zhao) are two aimless loners from China’s Shanxi province whose lives are turned around when they meet Qiao Qiao (Tiao), a singer and model for the Mongolian King Liquor company. The more reckless and impulsive Xiao Ji becomes fixated with Qiao Qiao, despite her boyfriend, Qiao San, a dangerous loan shark and thug.
Critique: Jia Zhangke’s controlled sense of naturalism is a constant in his filmography. It’s asserted in his Bresson-inspired debut, Xiao Wu (aka Pickpocket), and is a visible thread right up to his latest and arguably most significant feature Ash is Purest White this past year. His characters are mostly disaffected loners who are seemingly caught in a constant state of transition; though directionless, they’re always on buses or riding on scooters, dirtbikes, motorcycles, boats and cars. Disaffected as they may be, Jia’s creations are either immersed or tossed aside due to the immensity of China’s industry, culture, media and economy or merely swallowed by the tremendousness of time. Unknown Pleasures might not have the scale of Mountains May Depart, Still Life and Ash is Purest White but, in the tradition of artistic integrity, Jia didn’t need it to construct the ambitious narratives of his early features. You can feel the fast-and-loose spirit of the production (Jia shot the film in less than three weeks), the grain and grit of the digital photography and the unpredictable trajectories of its characters. Like the rest of Jia’s work, Unknown Pleasures is a brilliantly realized feature as much as it is an exemplary snapshot of the time in which it was made. While the flexibility of digital video opened up a snappy sense of spontaneity that’s utilized to its fullest potential, Unknown Pleasures retains the steady repose that defines the director’s finest moments. By reveling in the seemingly banal activities such as riding a bus, watching television or scootering around a wrecked urban landscape, he ferrets out an ethereal otherness, an existential honesty. Whether it’s the expressions in the actor’s impassive gazes, the range of a scene, its blocking or its editing, it ultimately comes down to the intuition and artistic instincts of a director who’s always performing at the peak of his powers.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: In a perfect world, I’d like to see all the feature films of Jia Zhangke don a spine number. Some of his titles such as The World, A Touch of Sin, Still Life, Mountains May Depart and 24 City are available on DVD and Blu-ray or streaming (while the DVDs are mounting in price due to their dwindling presence).
This column made a case for the inclusion of his debut film, Xiao Wu, due to its apparent merits, its need for restoration and its near invisibility on home video. Unknown Pleasures is frequently on a double bill DVD with Xiao Wu, thanks to Artificial Eye, who as we all know have hosted many titles that eventually got a spine number. Plus Unknown Pleasures could use a restoration.