You might have thought, based on my SIFF reviews thus far, that all my reviews of films at this festival were going to be unabashedly positive. And they might have been, had I not decided to screen Platform, a film being shown as part of SIFF's "Emerging Masters" series, by critically lauded Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke. I have nothing against Chinese film in general (heck, Farewell My Concubine is one of my favorite movies) or Jia Zhang-ke in particular - on the contrary, I was particularly excited about seeing both Platform and the film showing immediate after it, Jia's more recent film, The World.
When a filmmaker is selected for the "Emerging Masters" series at SIFF, it's no small deal. Past Emerging Masters have included Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Miike Takashi (Audition) and Park Chan-wook (Old Boy). So I was highly optimistic Jia Zhang-ke's films would be worth my time. A long line of fellow SIFF attendees waiting to get into the screening confirmed that these movies were SIFF "hot tickets", and there was palpable energy buzzing amongst the filmgoers, both Chinese and American, waiting to get into the theater.
Good film, like good theater, is about more that just what's on the screen; there is a palpable interaction of energy between film and audience when viewers really connect with what they are watching. The screening earlier this week of The Story of My Life was a prime example of that dynamic - the audience that night connected with the film in a remarkable way. Unfortunately, that dynamic just never materialized with Platform - not for me and not, I daresay, for the vast majority of my fellow film buffs who endured every 155 minutes of this excruciating film.
This is not to say that I hated every second of the 9,300 seconds I sat through watching this film, or even that my intellectual highbrow is simply too low to grasp the deeper messages the filmmaker was trying to convey; actually, there were parts of Platform I liked very much, and that made it all the more painful to watch the movie as a whole. Platform had some important cultural and social messages that got lost in the mire of the director's fragmented and disconnected filmmaking style, and the length of the epic film, which covers a decade in the lives of a group of young artists in rural China. The artists begin the film as members of a Peasant Cultural Team (that means "I'm an artist - no manual labor", as one of the members haughtily declares near the beginning of the film).
There are pieces of the film that are seemingly disconnected from anything that happens before or after them; the fabric of Platform would have been much stronger - and more accessible to your average person who seeks out and enjoys artsy, intellectual films, had the director woven these incongruous episodes into a more coherant whole. I kept waiting for all of the pieces to fall into place in a way that actually made sense, but it just never happened with this film. The sameness of many of the characters and the lack of a fuller character development made it hard to keep track of who was who and what their relationships were to each other.
The film attempts to convey the broad social and political changes sweeping China in the 1980s through the experience of this troupe of artists as their group becomes privatised and the social messages they were trained to propogandize through art become less relevant. They reinvent themselves as the All-Star Rock 'n Breakdance Electronic band. The groups' earnest attempts to retain their artistic integrity and cope with social change, as ideals of capitalism and pop culture square off with the realities of poverty and political oppression in the rural Shanxi province (where Jia was himself raised) is a fascinating idea, and it saddens me that what could have been a film that really connected the rest of the world to the reality of life in rural communist China instead became a film that only the most studious and intellectual of film scholars will fully appreciate.
Certain elements of Platform work very well: the constant presence of an impersonal voice announcing news over loudspeakers of things discordant to the residents of these rural towns - the disgrace of a politician in Beijing or the weather in Mongolia - almost had the feel of the of "Tokyo Rose" - the mythical, mocking, female voice that taunted American POWs with propaganda over loudspeakers during WWII. The absolute non-reaction of the people to the constant sound of gunshots in the background - the sound of fellow human beings being shot by police for unknown crimes - was in itself a haunting indictment of how human beings can tune out atrocity even as it punctuates their day-to-day existence.
The filmmaking style was fragmented and disjointed and proceeded with aching slowness - a purposeful decision by the director, presumably to convey the pace of life of this very different culture. Film snobs, no doubt, will consider me one of the unwashed heathen for not appreciating this aspect of Jia's film, but, trust me, it just did not work. The slowness of pace that worked so well to covney culture in Earth and Ashes, in Platform simply made for an excruiating film watching experience.
A good film should engage the audience, draw you into the story, make you forget, even, that you're watching a film in a movie theater. With Platform I was so disengaged from the story (or lack of story) that I had plenty of time to people-watch (also not a good sign of a film drawing me in), and I observed other folks doing everything but staying engaged in the film. There was a lot of foot shuffling, toe tapping, bodies shifting in seats, throat clearing, deep sighing and, even, snoring, going on around me.
When the end credits finally, mercifully rolled, there was audibly collective sigh of relief as people rushed out of the theater, as if fearing if they didn't leave quickly they'd be trapped into staying for the next one. I overheard more than one person whispering to a companion that they wanted to just slip out and not stay for The World, which was scheduled to screen immediately following Platform. When I confessed to my viewing companion that I just didn't really get the film, that many of the scenes made no sense to me, and that I couldn't even keep the characters straight because there was no cohesive storyline or character arc, she sighed with relief and said, "I'm so glad you said that! I thought it was just me, that I didn't 'get it', and I felt really stupid." No, it wasn't just her, and it wasn't just me.
I'm sure some people enjoyed Platform, and, in fairness, I didn't stay to see The World, so I can't speak for that film. I don't want to say that I'd never see one of Jia's films again; there were moments of Platform where promise shone through, but never materialized. Besides, one bad film doesn't mean all a director's other films will be equally unwatchable. Quentin Tarentino is my favorite director, and Pulp Fiction one of my favorite movies, but you couldn't pay me to sit through a screening of Reservoir Dogs.
In spite of its flaws, Platform certainly shows Jia's promise as a filmmaker, and at some point I want to watch The World to see how he's evolved stylistically. The unique cultural vision he attempts to capture is intriguing, although it just didn't gel enough for me to enjoy this particular film. I've actually seen critical reviews praising the Jia's disjointed style and heralding it as part of a "Sixth Generation" style of filmmaking out of China. I guess moviegoers like myself, who prefer to watch movies with engaging stories that actually make sense, will just have to wait for the "Seventh Generation" of Chinese filmmaking to evolve - or for Jia's own style to mature into one that allows him to convey his message through more accessible films.