Jia Zhangke’s Useless screening Saturday at 92Y Tribeca

By Kevin B. Lee

This Saturday evening at the 92Y Tribeca, there is a rare screening of Useless, a grossly underrated documentary by Jia Zhangke that rightly should be considered one of his most sublime and unexpectedly personal works. By exploring three aspects of the clothing industry in China, Jia subtly explores the economic and creative options of not just factory workers, tailors and clothing designers, but his own issues as an independent filmmaker contending with the often competing realms of art, commerce, national duty and personal expression.

These concerns were especially poignant at a time when Jia was fast becoming a fixture in the glamorous world film festival circuit (a predicament somewhat akin to the life of one of his subjects, designer Ma Ke, whose life he depicts as a Felliniesque carnival more than a little removed from the realities of most Chinese people), at risk of losing sight of the more humble grassroots milieu from which he emerged (which he revisits in the film’s poignant last act, involving a village tailor who’s been forced to abandon his insolvent trade to become a coal miner). His unique approach of documentary as refracted self-portrait can also be seen in another film from around the same time, Dong, available at dGenerate’s catalog.

The screening is part of the series Not Coming to a Theater Near You, presented by the film blog of the same name, which is currently featuring a series of reviews spotlighting Jia’s oeuvre. Details after the break.

Rarely screened in North America and unavailable on DVD, the second documentary feature by premier Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke explores the paradoxes and inequities of China’s burgeoning consumer economy through the art, utility and economics of clothing. Ostensibly a commissioned film for haute-couture designer Ma Ke, Useless instead offers a core sample of China’s garment industry, from the mass-producing factories of Guangdong to the glittery runways of Paris Fashion Week to the cramped tailor shop in a coal-mining town in Shanxi. Like his Still Life and 24 City, Useless occupies an ambiguous space between documentary and fiction, elegantly mixing observational footage and interviews with staged interactions and gliding HD camerawork. And as in all of Jia’s films, what emerges is less a polemic against China’s new consumer culture than a richly layered essay on labor, globalization and artistic expression, interweaving the many social uses of clothing as a means of personal expression and a marker of class identity.

Director: Jia Zhang-ke. 80 min. 2007. DigiBeta.

Date & Time: Sat, May 28, 2011, 8:00pm

Location: 92YTribeca, 200 Hudson Street Directions

Venue: 92YTribeca Screening Room

Code: T-MM5FM28-01

Price: $12.00

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