If making a film about one’s hometown is unusual for Wiseman, it’s anything but for Jia Zhangke, the greatest and most internationally renowned of China’s “Sixth Generation” directors. Jia’s 1997 debut feature “Xiao Wu” (which played in the NYFF’s Revivals section) took place in his native Fenyang, in Shanxi Province, and the filmmaker has returned to the area in other narrative films including “Platform” and “Mountains May Depart.”
Cultural memory and the often-difficult course of change in modern China, especially for ordinary Chinese, are recurrent subjects for Jia, and they return in the new documentary “Swimming Out till the Sea Turns Blue.” Inspired by a literature festival in Shanxi Province, the film focuses on three established, middle-aged writers, but it includes the recollections of various interviewees, and these tell a collective tale that stretches from the 1940s, when war gave way to a Communist government that gradually endeavored to pull rural people out of poverty with the new farming techniques and by banning traditions like arranged marriages, to the present day.
As the tale moves through the decades, the Cultural Revolution is glancingly mentioned when we here of people being sent away for “reeducation,” but the horrors and massive cultural destruction of that period are largely unaddressed, as are the genocidal starvations experienced under Mao Zedong. It would be interesting to know if Jia skirted such subjects fearing official censure, or if he simply wanted to focus closely on the lives and viewpoints of writers rather than invoke large political issues that could overshadow his protagonists.
Sometimes the memories verbalized here recount momentous events. Jia Pingwa, one of Jia’s threesome (and no relation, it appears), recalls the time after the Cultural Revolution when China began to open up to the world and translations of books by Western authors started to appear along with works by artists like Picasso. From the astonishment still evident in his voice, you can tell what a major shift this marked, perhaps especially for writers and artists.
Other recollections are more personal. The most colorful of Jia’s trio, burly, gregarious Yu Hua, tells of becoming a dentist but then realizing he couldn’t stand looking into people’s open mouths all day, so he started writing short stories. He also recalls the time when initial success earned him a trip to see an editor in Beijing, and he was so wonderstruck by the city that he stayed for a month, a country boy suddenly aware of the wider world.