Review: Jia Zhangke’s ‘Swimming Away Till the Sea Turns Blue’ pays moving tribute in order to four Chinese writers

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The 51-year-old director Jia Zhangke is usually widely considered the cinema’s most artful chronicler of a modern China in constant, mind-boggling flux. He is much less consistently recognized as one of the medium’s great foodies, someone whose camera lingers, lovingly when unobtrusively, on images of pork being finely chopped and dumplings being collapsed and steamed. (His 2019 triumph, “Ash Is Purest White, ” has one of the best noodle-slurping scenes since “Tampopo. ” ) While food is not really the point of his elegiac new documentary, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Transforms Blue, ” it’s not precisely not the point either. Remarkably, “Eating” is the title of its tasty first chapter, starting a movie that, as actually with Jia, encircles a rich, varied and often painful spectrum of human experience.

There are 18 chapters, some more generically titled (“Love, ” “Disease, ” “Journeys”) than others, yet all of them flowing from the idea that history encompasses multitudes. That more or less sums up the theme and method of this movie, a collection of interviews that revisit a broad swath associated with 20th century history, stretching across the trauma and turmoil of the Mao years to the equally restless post-revolutionary years that followed. Ostensibly the portrait of four authors whose essays, stories plus novels have illuminated the impact of these events upon Chinese rural life, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Changes Blue” is also inevitably the primer on agriculture and economics, politics and trend, romance and family. The particular rhythms are uneven, the particular patterns of meaning frequently elusive. But they coalesce right into a moving glimpse of lives lived and artistic legacies forged in the shadow — and sometimes the harsh, glaring light — associated with momentous historical change.

The film has been shot in conjunction with a 2019 literary festival in Shaanxi, Jia’s home province and also a setting for some of the early narrative features, including “Xiao Wu” (1997) and “Platform” (2000), that brought your pet to international prominence. Yet apart from a few fleeting images of attendees making their way toward the festival and a hasty montage of authors’ speeches and toasts, the festival is just a pretext for a documentary whose true focus lies elsewhere. Dealing with his brilliant longtime movie director of photography, Yu Likwai (shooting on hyper-crisp digital), Jia brings into sharp focus the personal experiences associated with his four author subjects, three of whom continue to be living.

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People point at a mural while bystanders snap photos.

An image from Jia Zhangke’s 2020 documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Transforms Blue. ”

(Cinema Guild)

The main one who isn’t, Ma Feng, is fondly remembered right here by his daughter along with his old friends within Shaanxi’s Jia Family Community (no relation to the filmmaker), known back in 1949 being a dismal town with sterile soil, wretched poverty plus an abundance of unmarryable men. Together 91-year-old resident tells this, many of these obstacles were get over through organized labor attempts dictated by the Communist Celebration and spearheaded by neighborhood leaders like Ma, an educated farmer (and skilled matchmaker). But Ma is best appreciated for the stories and novels he wrote in the early years from the Mao regime, full of boor peasant characters inspired by his fellow villagers and largely beholden to celebration values.

Having a decidedly dimmer view of the situation — though he’s noticeably circumspect about a few of the details — is Jia Pingwa (also no regards to the filmmaker), who was blessed in 1952 and whose personal and creative coming-of-age coincided with the onset from the Cultural Revolution. He speaks here with measured the law of gravity about that terrible time, during which his father was falsely accused of being a counterrevolutionary plus sentenced to forced work. He also speaks of the dawn of modern Chinese literary works (and, not incidentally, the particular country’s newfound exposure to works of Western art) in the 1980s — the 10 years that saw his own modification into a renowned literary head, producing work that moved formal boundaries and sometimes ran afoul of authorities censors.

For everyone their differences, Jia Pingwa’s experience echoes Ma’s in a single crucial respect: After spending a while away, both writers present rich creative inspiration by returning to their native Shaanxi.

The two younger writers interviewed here hail from different provinces and now live in Beijing, however they too are united by way of a work’s sustained focus on the particular ever-shifting conditions of rural life. One of them is Liang Hong, who speaks of the ’70s childhood in Henan province marked by poverty and pain, dwelling along with especially poignant emphasis on the girl mother’s death and the girl father’s struggle to raise her and her siblings. But these struggles have also been offset simply by moments of creative fulfillment and personal joy, as we observe when Jia turns the camera on Liang’s personal teenage son.

Author Liang Hong sits behind tables stacked with books.

Author Liang Hong in Jia Zhangke’s 2020 documentary “Swimming Out Till the Sea Becomes Blue. ”

(Cinema Guild)

Perhaps the most captivating of the movie’s main subjects is Yu Hua, who began composing in the ’80s after functioning as a dentist and in whose easy grin and irascible wit give this generally sedate work a fix of life. The author associated with several novels — including the much-acclaimed, much-adapted “To Live” — Yu steers us through a personal history to which more than a few writers will relate: the initial rejections, the newsletter of his first brief stories (provided he satisfy his editor’s demand for the happy ending) and the initial strange, disorienting trappings associated with fame. All three from the writers interviewed here are, not surprisingly, gifted storytellers, adept with unfurling their own personal narratives in engrossing fashion.

That’s particularly ideal for viewers who come to this movie, as I did, along with little firsthand knowledge of their particular written work and that will find little enlightenment, at least on that particular score, from Jia’s unsurprisingly oblique method of portraiture. Like so much of the director’s work — including his earlier films “Dong” (2006) and “Useless” (2007), with which it forms a loose trilogy of documentaries about artists — “Swimming Out Till the Sea Becomes Blue” resists the obvious, even when it finally reveals the meaning behind its poetic title. It’s a brief, bittersweet shot of an anecdote, and it will remind us of the stories we are so often told in life — sometimes true, sometimes not — and also of the knowledge and firsthand experience that will help us tell the difference.

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‘Swimming Out there Till the Sea Turns Blue’

Not rated

In Mandarin with Uk dialogue

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Playing: Starts May twenty-eight, Laemmle Royal, West La