Imagine where China might be now if Mao hadn’t tortured and killed his best educated citizens during his various mass movements. Instead, the country lost decades of economic and intellectual development. However, those dark years provided artistic fodder for several novelists who lived through them. Jia Zhangke traces the course of Chinese history through the lives and work of four writers associated with his home province of Shanxi in Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, which opens this Friday in New York and LA.
The first writer under discussion happens to be the least interesting, perhaps because Ma Feng is long dead and most of those speaking of him remember him as loyal Communist village leader. Of course, the regime he helped build would eventually launch the infamous Cultural Revolution, which would sweep up Jia Pingwa’s father, a high school educator. His treatment was so unfair, the future novelist was eventually classified as “redeemable” and allowed to pursue an education, yet in subsequent years, he still found himself drawn to rural communities.
Yu Hua would also write about the Cultural Revolution in To Live (Zhang Yimou’s film adaptation would be pulled from distribution by the Party, which subsequently banned him and his star, Gong Li, from making films for two years). However, Yu started publishing under the relative freedom of Deng Xiaoping’s early reform years. In fact, he was surprisingly shrewd in his dealings with his publisher.
Liang Hong is a Gen-Xer who has written fiction, but she is best known for her non-fiction books about her native Liang Village and the migrant workers who still maintain their ties to home. Indeed, her attention to China’s “Great Migration” phenomenon makes her work particularly zeitgeisty.
Swimming, but the connection between Jia’s subjects remains a loose one based almost entirely on occupation and geography. Arguably, this project might have worked better as three short docs on Jia Pngwa, Yu, and Liang (while Ma could have been safely left on the editing room floor). It is a lovely crafted documentary, featuring some memorable images (skillfully framed and lensed by cinematographer Yu Lik-wai) and aptly selected excerpts from the writers’ key works. However, the through-line remains rather vague.
Nevertheless, a film with a lot of good stuff must by definition be pretty good itself. Such is true here. Despite a slow start (yes, that would be Ma again), the film delivers some interesting perspectives on the last sixty-some years of Mainland Chinese history and literature. Recommended for fans of Jia Zhangke and independent Chinese cinema, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue opens in select theaters this Friday (5/28).