12 May 2009 | jasoneckelman
This review is primarily in response to Barry Freed's, whose take on the film is so wildly different from mine it makes me wonder if we saw the same movie.
I LOVED this movie. I think the quasi-documentary style is wholly winning and adds a lot to the story. As far as defending Jia's decision not to do a "traditional" documentary, I guess I just have to give him the benefit of the doubt. If he had wanted to do a "traditional" documentary, then he would have done so. I feel that Jia is an accomplished enough artist that I can assume he has an instinctive sense of what will best serve a particular story. Clearly, in this instance, he decided on a fact/fiction "blend", and to my mind, he made the right call.
While watching this, I couldn't help but think of Werner Herzog and his theory of "ecstatic truth" ("I know that by making a clear distinction between "fact" and "truth" in my films, I'm able to penetrate into a deeper stratum of truth that most films never attain. This deep inner truth inherent in cinema can be discovered only by not being bureaucratically, politically, and mathematically correct." - W. Herzog). While I'm not (necessarily) making a comparison between Zhang-ke and Herzog, I feel that they are very much after the same thing. Whether an essential truth can be best conveyed using actors or non-actors, using a documentary or drama approach, etc. are questions that both directors obviously struggle with, and I feel that they have come to similar conclusions. They (to my mind) have opted to fuse the two approaches, in an attempt to remove intellectual and emotional barriers between the people on-screen and the people in the audience. And more often than not, that approach works, and works in a very powerful way.
Finally, I thought the performances, without exception, were utterly devastating and mind-blowing. I don't know what Jia does to his actors to get performances of that caliber, but whatever it is, he needs to keep it up. I think this is an excellent companion-piece to "Still Life", and a beautiful addition to his body of work. Masterful.