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Jia Zhang-ke’s Melancholy Love Story

Jia Zhang-ke’s Melancholy Love Story

A recurring motif in the films of Jia Zhang-ke is the enchantment of watching his extraordinary muse, Zhao Tao, dance — in the glitzy faux-Vegas spectacles of The World; leading a routine to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” in Mountains May Depart; strutting in formation to the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A” in Ash Is Purest White. In the Chinese master filmmaker’s decades-spanning drama Caught by the Tides (Feng Liu Yi Dai), Zhao shimmies around a dance floor to pulsing EDM, unaware that the man in her life will soon leave town, dropping her into a 20-year romantic limbo.

Eclectic music choices have always played an important part in Jia’s chronicles of social change and shifting values in a contemporary China surging forward, driven by cultural and economic expansion, urbanization and globalization, its traditional insularity increasingly pierced by Western influences.

Caught by the Tides

The Bottom Line

Ebbs and flows like poetry.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Zhao Tao, Li Zhubin, Pan Jianlin, Lan Zhou, Zhou You, Ren Ke, Mao Tao
Director: Jia Zhang-ke
Screenwriters: Jia Zhang-ke, Wan Jiahuan

1 hour 51 minutes

Songs are more present than ever in his new film. They range from traditional folk tunes sung by women huddled around a stove for warmth in Datong, whose coal-mining industry is in steep decline, through Chinese rock plucked from across the first two decades of the 21st century to perky pop performed to lure customers into shopping malls or the crooning of an old man positioned as an unlikely social media star.

While never straying from his customary unfiltered realism, Jia uses music as a reflection of both the social fabric of his country and the inner life of his protagonist, Qiaoqiao (Zhao), who breaks her silence only when she sings.

In some of his recent films Jia has inched into genre, pointedly nodding to wuxia in A Touch of Sin and depicting underworld gangsters in Ash Is Purest White. In this contemplative return to his roots, the director adopts the unhurried mosaic style of his earlier works. Perhaps most notably, it recalls 2000’s Platform, which observed the generational shifts of post-Cultural Revolution China in the 1980s through a group of friends in a northern provincial town.

The new feature looks back not only on recent national history but also on Jia’s entire filmography, echoing themes, geographical features, documentary techniques and structural elements while incorporating footage shot in different formats at various intervals — Yu Lik-wai and Eric Gautier served as cinematographers at different times — from 2001 through 2023. In terms of scope, that approach almost gives it a kinship with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, though it also means the film will be less captivating to audiences unfamiliar with Jia’s work.

Zhao first appeared as a character named Qiaoqiao in 2002’s Unknown Pleasure and again 16 years later in Ash Is Purest White. But those women were living parallel lives in different cities to the protagonist of Caught by the Tides.

A native of Datong, this version of Qiaoqiao makes a living performing in clubs or working as a model in the city’s commercial district. That shiny hub of consumerism stands in sharp contrast to the drab industrial skyline and crumbling housing blocks for mine workers outside the city center, as do news broadcasts about China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, touted as a major step forward in relations with the U.S.

Qiaoqiao has a pleasurable life with her boyfriend Brother Bin (Li Zhubin), who likes to party and doubles as her manager in his half-hearted fashion. But he aims higher, set on making a mark in the business world beyond Datong’s small-time confines. She’s unhappy when he informs her that he’s leaving town, but he promises to come back and fetch her when he’s made some money.

Jia’s use of hypnotic slow pans conveys a sense of much time passing, with a poignancy reflected in Lim Giong’s lovely score. Nowhere is this more evocative than in the many travel sequences. That applies not just to when Qiaoqiao sets off on a public transport boat down the Yangtze River to find Bin after a period of radio silence, but also to glimpses of what seems almost like a mass migration from the provinces to the cities. The blur of train passengers — soldiers and civilians — heading into an uncertain future in search of opportunity is quite affecting. Those sad, shimmering images, which appear almost as if they are underwater, are a gorgeous example of the way Jia manipulates the visuals to convey the emotional distance of time.

Despite getting no response from Bin to her texts, Qiaoqiao continues with staunch determination and little money, passing through Fengjui and the Three Gorges and going all the way to Guangdong in the South. Her silence intensifies the sense that we are observing the rapidly changing face of these places directly through Qiaoqiao’s eyes. Evidence of progress co-exists with signs of decay, poverty and once populous communities reduced to rubble.

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Meanwhile, Bin is caught up in the reverse process of construction, specifically in a shady business deal to redevelop a demolished site. When he continues to ignore Qiaoqiao’s attempts to contact him, she organizes a missing person announcement and texts that she will continue to have it broadcast until he responds. When they do eventually meet again, she reveals her wounded pride while he just seems cowardly and evasive.

Ultimately, Qiaoqiao proves stronger than Bin, whose endeavors yield no lasting success. The final section of the film takes place during the pandemic. That time shift is communicated by the sea of masked faces on a flight taken in 2021 by the now broken and significantly aged Bin from the southern city of Zhuhai back to Datong. (There’s wry humor in news excerpts trumpeting China’s COVID response while pointing to the failure of the U.S. to contain the outbreak.)

Qiaoqiao has also returned to Datong, working as a supermarket cashier in a mall where a robot greets customers — the most direct nod Jia makes to the increased role of AI technology in China. In an amusing scene, the android attempts to read her face, responding to what it interprets as a sad expression with quotations from Mother Teresa and Mark Twain.

When Bin inevitably does see Qiaoqiao again, the encounter is a melancholy one, but she now needs him far less than he needs her. Her anger toward him has faded, and she’s still standing, still moving forward, demonstrating her resilience and even her power in a beautiful closing sequence that’s as emotionally charged and meaningful a conclusion as any Jia has ever given us.

At less than two hours, Caught by the Tides is relatively compact for the director. Even if its narrative often drifts, particularly in the extended travel interludes, the poetic rhythms established by editors Yang Chao, Lin Xudong and Matthieu Laclau cast a spell for audiences willing to tune in to the film’s observational wavelength.

A longtime line producer on Jia’s films, Li has made occasional appearances in front of the camera, including as Brother Bin in Unknown Pleasures. He plays a somewhat feckless version of the character here, and Bin’s treatment of Qiaoqiao invites antipathy. Yet his physical frailty toward the end, when he walks with a cane and struggles to grasp the innovations of a world that has moved on without him, is surprisingly touching.

Zhao, by contrast, shows how Qiaoqiao has adapted, absorbing disappointments and perhaps looking back with some wistfulness to her younger days, when she was carefree and passionate, but content in herself and capable of changing with the times. Zhao’s face is one of the most transfixingly expressive in modern cinema, and her long collaboration with her husband Jia stands among the screen’s greatest actress-director unions.

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