Friday, September 25, 2015
Director/writer: Zhangke Jia
Photography: Nelson Lik-wai Yu
Music: Yoshihiro Hanno
Editor: Jinlei Kong
Cast: Hongwei Wong, Tao Zhao, Jing Dong Liang, Tian-yi Yang, Bo Wang
The first time I sat down to look at Platform, earlier this year, I came away with a germ of an impression that it is something on the order of an Asian Fame. My Halliwell's (2008 edition) dismisses it as mediocre, with zero stars, complaining about the overuse of long shots. Zero stars in that system is not as bad as it sounds, but it's not good. Watching Platform, I glazed over, I admit. I was watching it from the perspective of an ongoing long-term self-imposed obligation, attempting to track down and write up the highest-ranking entrants on the list of 21st-century movies at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? For the four years I have been aware of the list, it has been remarkably volatile. This is not that surprising, given the relatively small sample size and brief time to assimilate, and indeed it's one of the most interesting features of that list. It has rewritten its top 10 by half in my time of following the annual updates.
Platform has been steady at #17 since 2013. It spent 2011 and 2012 in the 40s, and before that, for the first two years of the list, it was over 100. I suspect the primary source of its high regard lies with a 2005 review by Jonathan Rosenbaum in which he labels it "one of the greatest of all Chinese films" but I can't explain how that has anything to do with the recent surges of support. I appreciate many of the disparate pieces of Platform—the burnishing of its central metaphor, the use of pop music, the sense of time and place—but for the most part I flail to find meaningful connecting points, beyond the generic anomie, which I can always get behind at least a little. I found a nice appreciation of it by Joel Bocko at the Wonders in the Dark blog. I won't be able to give it anywhere near as thoughtful of a treatment.
But I'm glad that piece reminded me of director Zhangke Jia's Still Life, which I think is much the better movie and in turn makes me think I might find a way in to Platform sometime. A recent second viewing did not give me any better impression, however. Perhaps poisoned by the Halliwell's gibe, it again seemed overly removed, the action often maddeningly distant. I understand that's part of the point, because that's the way life in China proceeded during the '80s, which is the time period meditated in Platform. Fair enough. It's just that I'm such a sucker for the narrative arc.
In fact, I don't think I was far wrong in my first impression. If you added a few more sitcom rhythms to it, it could easily be a Chinese Fame. The only difference is that these youngsters bursting with talent are living out their primes in times that are economically strained and politically oppressive (though loosening), with the government sustaining and intruding in strange ways. The handful that we follow start as state-supported performers in a traveling troupe road show, which goes by bus from town to town cheering the countryside with Maoist-approved entertainment. But China in the '80s, as Platform documents, was a time when Mao was set aside, ever so respectfully, and when capitalism was turned to, ever so gingerly—a time of major change.
As with films by other contemporary Asian film directors—Apichatpong Weerasethakul comes to mind immediately—Platform comes most alive for me with the pop music, such as a Eurovision style of song about Genghis Khan. Director Jia has spoken in interviews about the music he used, saying that it's rooted in the music he knew and experienced then, hearing some of it only via illicit radio. That's a nice point and it's evident in the intimate and surprising ways the characters interact with music, which provide some of the best moments, as when an office worker dances in her private workspace to a song on the radio.
If the central metaphor seems to me belabored—the sense of existing in a space designed for waiting, while waiting for the train of the future to arrive—well, I didn't live through it. What do I know? Even so, many of the various train scenes—such as the troupe's spontaneous rehearsal in the dark of the traveling bus, joining their voices to emulate a howling train whistle—are also high points. I particularly like the scene when they all finally get the opportunity to see a train, which incidentally also speaks to their isolation.
It's a long, slow, peripatetic decade for this handful of youths, in a context of long, slow, peripatetic development in China, which spent the immediate period after the Cultural Revolution tip-toeing around capitalism and how to make it work (they are still tip-toeing). There are episodes here of "privatization" as the entertainment skills of the troupe lose the material support of the government and must go out on their own, with our old friend, and their new one, The Market, entering the scene. Some of these characters cope better than others, but more the point is the fine grinding of the transition, which is almost not perceptible, but in the end has effectively utterly transformed them, not necessarily for the better. Platform never even mentions a major event that takes place at the end of the '80s, Tiananmen, because it doesn't have to. It's just filling in a backstory to that, in many ways.