Kratki film slavnog Zhangkea. Prijatelji/ljubavnici s fakulteta ponovno se sreću nakon deset godina. Zapravo portrert grada Suzhoua, azijske Venecije.
Hats off to the New York Film Festival, they’ve actually programmed a short film that I want to see! Chinese director Jia Zhangke, whose feature documentary hybrid what’s-it 24 City (reviewed from the Cannes Film Festival) is playing in New York’s main program, is a busy man, spinning documentary webs in the foreground and smaller, fictional ones in the background (or is the other way around?). If you are unclear as to whether I’m describing the kinds of movies he’s making or the content of the actual films themselves, perhaps that’s the point. Cry Me a River, his short playing at NYFF, disappointingly avoids the increasingly interesting mix—if not downright confusion—between the real world and the dramatic the director perfected in Still Life and has pushed in an even stranger direction in 24 City. Instead, this short is a simple affair of a foursome of old high school classmates returning to honor the birthday of a professor, pine over old sweethearts, and mourn the movement out of the hope and dreams of the youth of the 1990s into the disappointment of being an adult in the year 2008.
Okay, so dramatically Jia isn’t exactly lighting any new fires, but if Cry Me a River is a bit slumberous in story, it is spatially exciting. What does this mean exactly? The actors don’t have much to work with and don’t exactly work with it well (though I think we all welcome any reappearance of two of the directors magnetic regulars, Zhao Tao and Wang Hongwei), but the way Jia constructs the world around them, the world they inhabit, and most importantly the world they travel through, really highlights why he is considered one of the world’s best filmmakers.
I see corridors, long lengthy spaces. A basketball court seen from the sidelines suddenly opened up by a perpendicular cut revealing it scrunched into the receding distance of the long camera lens. The short depth of an apartment, freed by a pan from a fridge against the wall to a room in the back, suddenly opening up the cramped space; and the next shot, of the balcony corridor of the building complex, further extending a line of space into the background in the digital deep-focus of the composition. This is repeated again and again: a lengthy side-long tracking shot floats laterally down a canal following the ambling path of the four classmates; their professor’s birthday dinner is held in a banquet room through whose doorway you can see all the way across square and a pond to the shore on the other side; and from there another perpendicular cut places the restaurant on a flat horizontal plane just like the canal path. The movie is L-shaped indeed, the flat sideways base juxtaposed with deep receding space of its lengthy vertical.
Is it no wonder that most moving sequences of the whole of Cry Me a River are not when anything is said but rather the foursome taking a boat ride on the canal, the camera facing backward and then forward, the canal flowing up and down the z-axis of the screen? Indeed, the coup-de-grace, this minimal movie’s moment of maximum beauty, sadness, and expression is a formal one: the abrupt clouding of deep background space. Jia goes in for a single shot two-shot of a pair of the thwarted high school lovers sitting on the boat as it tugs forward. They talk around the fact they used to, and probably still do, care for one another, the camera wavering back and forth between the two. In the background, out of focus and in shallow depth, likewise rocks the distant space of the canal behind them, the vanishing point blurred and unclear, short-focus turning the boat’s movements and that of the camera into an unstable, indeterminate setting for the erstwhile and never-more couple.
There are small moments of drama in Cry Me a River that are indeed moving, be it the introverted, self-possessed walk of Wang Hongwei and the way you can tell he likes one of the women simply by the manner in which he walks up to her; or the sweet, sad gesture of Zhao Tao holding back the hood of a man’s sweatshirt as he washes his hair, all the time and disappointments past between these people traceable in such movements. But the video is not made up entirely of such eloquent scenes, such small gestures. And where the script crumples without the proper support underneath it, Jia attempts to build a space for the story that can tell its own kind of emotion and create its own kind of meaning. - Daniel Kasman
Jia Zhangke’s 20-minute short film, Cry Me a River (which you can find as an extra on the Region 1 release of Jia’s feature 24 City), follows four friends in their late twenties (two men and two women) who have reunited to attend a dinner party in honor of their former professor. Jia’s camera tracks their movements over two days—playing basketball, revisiting old haunts, touring the city by boat and on foot, and of course, attending the dinner that’s brought them back together.
The meeting and meal with the professor takes place about one third of the way through the film, and this sequence, in which Jia uses only three shots, communicates volumes about the director’s concerns in the film as a whole, and also illustrates with striking clarity and efficiency why I appreciate his work so much.
Immediately following a brief tracking shot of the four friends walking to the dinner, Jia brings us directly into the dinner scene in the first of three shots at this location. The edit into this shot provides continuity with the previous shot in its focus on the four main characters of the film. However, it contrasts strongly with what has gone before in a number of ways: the stationary, rather than tracking, camera; the friends seated and still rather than walking; and the bright and colorful indoor setting rather than the drab and gray outdoor location.
This first shot (above) lasts for nearly three minutes, with the camera sitting stationary at eye level. Notice the modern looking dining table, the trendy and/or Western clothes worn by the attendees, the sleek glass—both in the open doors behind the table and the shelving or window in the foreground. The modern world dominates this shot, which is appropriate for what is, outside the professor, a crowd of twenty-somethings. The conversation tracks with the modern look of the shot, with the four friends discussing investments, economics, and the difficulty of survival in a newly westernized China.
After a man comes to pay their travel expenses—another reveal of their financial hardships—the others in the group (who had been standing out on the deck behind the table) file in to take their seats. With the group now gathered around the table, the professor offers a few words of reflection, noting that his students used to be wonderful poets. Now though, they no longer write. While it goes unsaid by the professor, the implication of his comments is clear: his students left behind the “impractical” and “useless” pursuit of poetry for the “practical” and “useful” pursuits of business and monetary gain. What better place for these young and upwardly mobile students to be in than a fancy western dining room?
When the group stands for a toast to celebrate the professor, we get another strong hint that the way chosen by these young students is not the only one available to them in China. In the doorway pass four people—two musicians heading to their instruments, and two dancers donning traditional performing makeup and robes. As the traditional Chinese music begins to play, it stands as a complement to the scene behind the chatter around the table.
Jia uses a straight cut to shift to the next shot, which lasts just over 30 seconds. Now we see from outside the building, looking in at the dining room through the windows. The traditional music continues to play. Instead of a stationary camera though, we get a tracking shot, at first drifting slowly to the right before centering on the windows and the dinner party. Now the people are much less visible, generally only their heads popping up above the bottom of the window frames. Most obvious in this shot is the outside of the building, which is clearly a traditional Chinese structure. The criss-cross patterns in the windows are the biggest clue at this point. This traditional building was also suggested in the previous shot, as decorative eaves dropped into the shot from the top of the frame. We see then a group largely composed of people who have embraced the new modernity in China, yet despite their best efforts to surround themselves with western fineries, find themselves enclosed in a traditional world.
At this point, the camera begins to track back to the left along the buildings wall. Just as the shift takes place, we see the shadows of the dancers across a thin red strip at the corner of the building. The camera moves, eventually dividing the new and the old world distinctly, as we see in the shot above.
But the camera doesn’t stop at the split, continuing on to frame the dancers under a traditional gazebo, with red columns to the left. The costumes and makeup become clear now, a woman in a pink robe and a man in blue. They move to the music, which continues to play from some other unseen place on the deck. However, as the eye drifts beyond the performers, we see a short iron or wooden fence dividing the platform from a body of water. Continuing on, we see quite clearly a large modern bridge in the background, lit with electric lights and with cars speeding across it in the night. Now the traditional has taken the foreground, while the modern sits cold and distant in the background.
Finally, Jia makes his final cut to a shot that lasts about 10 seconds. It’s a striking long shot, encompassing the entire building and deck area in the shot. The building is more clearly than ever now a traditional Chinese structure with the decorative roof and walls. At the right side stands the main enclosure, with the guests still enjoying their meal in the room. In the center are the dancers, in the open air but covered by the gazebo roof. And finally to the left, for the first time we see the musicians playing completely in the open air. In the background, we get a different kind of progression, from a large modern building at the left, to the bridge in the center, and finally th whole landscape blotted out by the traditional building at the right. And though these three groups are separated by strong vertical lines (columns and walls), they are all ultimately joined by the yellow strip striking across all three areas below.
What we see here then is a beautiful illustration, both through the narrative and dialogue, and especially through Jia’s refined visual sensibility, of the complex relationship between tradition and “progress.” “Progress” seeks to move beyond the constraints of tradition; to either set aside or build upon the old in favor of the new. Yet Jia shows us here that even in humanity’s best attempts to progress, we still find ourselves surrounded by tradition, borne out of it and drawn back to it, however briefly. - gladsomemorning.wordpress.com/