Jia Zhangke and the Stories Men Tell Themselves

The director’s latest documentary suffers from a fixation on the self-mythologizing of ordinary men.

Jia Zhangke has described his new documentary, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” as “not only a journey in contemporary Chinese literature, but also a journey into the spiritual history of the Chinese people.” Appropriately, the film sees Jia take on the role of a sentimental tour guide, reconstructing the lives and experiences of four 20th century authors through interviews and vivid tableaux of their hometowns.

The first subject of the documentary may be the least well-known, but he’s also possibly the closest to Jia’s heart. The director kicks off the film in his hometown, Jia Family Village in the northern Shanxi province, with the story of another local boy made good: Ma Feng (1922-2004), a leading figure in Shanxi’s rustic shanyaodan school of the 1950s and 1960s.

The other three authors are the film’s true draws, however. In order, Jia Zhangke interviews the well-known novelists Jia Pingwa (b. 1952) and Yu Hua (b. 1960) before finishing the film with the nonfiction writer Liang Hong (b. 1973). The discussions center on themes that run through all of Jia’s feature films, including the individual’s search for identity and freedom and their unbreakable ties to their homelands. His choice of subjects is telling. At a time when female authors are an increasingly prominent force in Chinese literature and nonfiction, his choice to interview just one woman — Liang, also the only non-novelist of the bunch — traps “Swimming” in the past in ways he may not have intended.

The audience is first introduced to Jia Pingwa — no relation to the director — as he takes in a qin opera performance in his hometown. Qin, like Jia Pingwa himself, hails from the northwestern Shaanxi province, and Jia has long been a fan: His 12th novel, “Qin Melody” was awarded China’s highest literature prize in 2008. Continue to read the full article here

– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.