Jia Zhangke’s “Dong” Reviewed at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Dong (dir. Jia Zhangke)

By Ariella Tai

As part of a larger feature on the films of director Jia Zhangke at Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Leo Goldsmith focuses on “Jia’s first documentary proper;” Dongavailable for purchase or rental through the dGenerate catalog. Goldsmith discusses the ways in which this multilayered documentary meditates on the shifting landscapes of China, both literal and economic, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the artist in these times. Goldsmith observes that Dong is,

partly about the effect the [Three Gorges Dam Project] has had on the people of the region. … Fengjie, home to the Qutang Gorge, is captured by Jia’s films as it vanishes: landscapes seem to dematerialize in the distant fog while, in the foreground, buildings are ripped apart by the hands of dozens of shirtless laborers.

The film is also, in large part, about artist Liu Xiaodong as he paints the day laborers in Fenjie and eventually travels to Thailand to complete portraits of young sex workers in Bangkok. The role that he occupies as an artist in contemporary China is as important to the film as the physical sites he visits:

Like Useless, Dong forms part of a series of non-fiction films on the work of artists in contemporary China, and as in the other film, Jia seems to use these works to meditate on his own role as a creator. In Liu, Jia finds a particularly significant subject: as a student at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, Liu starred as the lead in Wang Xiaoshuai’s The Days and served as art director for Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards, both made in 1993 and two of the early masterpieces of “Sixth Generation” cinema in China…Liu’s alignment with neo-realist, post-socialist Chinese cinema in some way complements his work as a painter, which is largely made up of portaits composed in a rough, but naturalistic style, vaguely reminiscent of Lucian Freud.

Goldsmith also astutely points out Jia’s exploration of Liu’s work as an act of reflection on his own artistic practice. He notes that although Jia turns a critical lens towards some of Liu’s “forced interactions with locals” and potential “elitist distance,” he shares a similar background with the painter. “Liu, like Jia, comes from a Northern industrial town and had to migrate to Beijing to make a life as an artist, an experience that parallels that of many migrant workers simply struggling to find a foothold in China’s burgeoning quasi-capitalist restructuring.”

Such moments emphasize Jia’s ambivalence about his own work as well as Liu’s, an acceptance or even deliberate attempt to problematize the artist’s role in the face of pressing social issues… it’s clear that Liu means to document, in some sense, the alienation of the working class from their labor, and as he reports at the end of the film, his intention is to use their bodies both to express something of himself and to give back to the subject something like dignity. And while Liu’s disquisitions on the difficulty and serious labor involved in being an artist seem a little dubious in light of the labor of his subjects, he is nonetheless realistic, even cynical, about the possibility of effecting real “change through art.”

To read the entire review, visit Not Coming to a Theater Near You here.

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