platform (2001)


director: jia zhangke

wang hong-wei, zhao tao, yao eryong, yang tian-yi, liang jing-dong

Jia Zhangke's Platform has almost everything an epic needs - spectacular, sometimes disturbing landscapes, a cast of characters going through a life-changing adventure, and a storyline that traverses a tumultuous span of history. There's nothing in Platform that isn't present in, say, Dr. Zhivago, but no one would mistake Jia's movie for David Lean's popular, romantic epic melodrama, even though Platform is probably the better film.

The story begins in - and constantly returns to - a small border town in a remote northern province of China. Minliang (Wang Hong-wei) is the sullen troublemaker in a troupe of "cultural workers", a group of singers, dancers, musicians and actors who travel their province performing stiff, ideological plays about Chairman Mao's village and other approved topics. Minliang is in love with Ruijuan (Zhao Tao), and they make endless circuits of their town's ancient walls awkwardly talking around their feelings for each other. It's a scene that, except for Minliang's homemade bellbottoms, might have happened twenty, fifty, a hundred or five hundred years earlier.

Change arrives, though, in the shape of Deng Xiaopeng's economic reforms of the 80s, and the troupe is informed by Beijing that they should include pop songs in their shows. Jia signals the passage of time in the film mostly by changes in wardrobe, with high heels, hairstyles and jeans, and telling changes in the almost constant drone of music and radio programs in the background, patriotic propaganda giving way to bright, tinny Canto-pop, a subtle but wildly evocative tactic straight out of a film like American Grafitti.

Beijing cuts off funding to arts troupes, giving workers the option to buy their performing licences, and Ruijuan decides to take a civil service job while Minliang heads off with the troupe to tour desolate mining towns and the remote villages of Inner Mongolia. Now called the All-Stars Rock 'n' Breakdance Electronic Band, the troupe perform on the back of flatbed trucks, Minliang singing punked-out Canto-pop in acid-wash jeans and a perm. Both on the road and at home, longstanding relationships break up as almost everything in Chinese society is utterly changed by the novel new emphasis on wealth.

The group keep returning to their hometown, finding it changed every time. After almost two hours of rickety buses and chugging tractors, the first time a private car drives down a dusty street, it feels like a spaceship has flown through the frame. It's small details like this, and the way that Jia's camera keeps a careful distance from his actors, that makes Platform an epic seen through the wrong end of a telescope, a story of small lives lived in a vast background, a trait shared by the best new Chinese cinema. Jia's film might be the first undeniable masterpiece of the new wave of young directors - it's certainly the most ambitious, and a priceless document of a society toppling headlong into an insecure future.