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In his latest film, the documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue,” famed Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke (“Still Life” and “Ash is Purest White”) stitches together multiple accounts of the transformation of day-to-day life in the face of the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976. Jia’s film chronicles an important stretch of modern Chinese history, an ambitious effort that weaves a diverse tapestry of themes — from the repercussions of the ending of arranged marriages, complications in filial relationships, and the rural versus urban cultural divide, to the role that literature and stories can play in transforming a small farming community in the province.
All of the film’s stories play out over the course of 70 years in Jia’s hometown in Fenyang, Shanxi, China. It’s a humble, rural town — and as the film progresses, one is left with the impression that they are not only learning more about the people speaking directly to the camera, but also a community they are being integrated into.
If “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” can be boiled down to a singular thesis it would be how sweeping change in the last 50 years of Chinese history have left people struggling to keep pace. If anything, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” is a deft reminder that the stories of the generations that came before matter, not just as a footnote in an already sullied historical record, but as a means of dealing with the ways Chinese society is changing again with a technology boom and globalization. Just as people had struggled to keep pace in the ‘60s, many are falling out of touch today.
This incredible sense of earnestness propels Jia’s documentary, a feat aided by Jia’s creative crew. Cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai plays close attention to framing his subjects. In one scene, as a writer speaks of the literary changes in the ‘60s, he is framed through a glass window against the tainted reflection of a modern road with cars and shops. In another scene, an elderly man speaks about the transformation of filial relationships in a small farm, as his family prepares dumplings over the dinner table. Editor Kong Jing-Lei also flaunts his work with a dizzying montage that captures a local literature festival, complete with overlapping dialogue, quick cuts, and a mounting musical score to create an ominous sense of impending change.
Unfortunately, sometimes Jia’s efforts produce a maze too complicated for audiences to follow. “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” covers 18 chapters, each segmented into a topic of conversation, from motherhood to literature to farming. But rarely do these segments and themes register as more than a sum of individual parts. The problem is not the breadth of topics, but the lack of cohesion that holds them together.
Also, while poignant, the ideas portrayed in “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” sometimes feel inaccessible to mainstream audiences. The film’s press kit features a glossary of 16 historical events and 12 literary works; it would be useful if these were treated as required reading. But excluding such a lengthy, complex backstory is also an understandable decision: “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” is not a high school history lesson, and it’s not meant to be. Jia helps the narrative economy of his documentary by excluding it.
Another example of this cultural barrier is the film’s use of idioms, which bookmark some of the film’s segments. In Chinese, idioms bear deeper meanings that go beyond word for word translations. The problem is, the film’s subtitles only ever show literal translations — it’s another small hurdle for unacquainted audiences to overcome.
It’s difficult to come up with a final verdict on “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.” For mainstream audiences coming in blind, Jia’s documentary will require patience. But for those armed with a basic understanding of modern Chinese history, Jia’s film is likely to strike a more resonant chord as a fascinating — if uneven — story about the resilience inherent to the human condition. Jia’s film was screened virtually at the New York Film Festival, which also featured a premiere of a high definition restoration for Jia’s directorial debut “Xiao Wu” (1997).
—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @LanzAaronGTan1.
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