Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (China, 2020)

Early in Jia Zhangke’s 2006 work Dong, a documentary on artist Liu Xiaodong, the camera hones in on Liu in a medium wide shot walking through mounds of dirt and rocks and occupying the space between the foreground and middleground while the Yangtze River and The Three Gorges are in the background. As Liu continues to traverse the terrain, the camera maintains its gaze on him by panning slowly from right to left. In the process, both Liu’s and the camera’s paired movements gradually reveal the construction of new buildings in the distant background across the river and, increasingly, cement rubble as well as the old demolished buildings from whence they came in the foreground. Liu eventually stops at the foot of the remains of a structure and the camera does the same. This one take of nearly four minutes in one respect literally reinforces the film’s subject of Liu. But in another respect, it succinctly encapsulates Jia’s essayistic, thematic concern of locating the individual and personal perspectives in the tumult of wide-ranging geographical/geological, social, and cultural shifts experienced and witnessed in China since the late 1970s, and in a more accelerated pace since the turn of the twenty-first century. This sequence fittingly marks Dong as the first film in what Jia calls his “Artists Trilogy,” or “spiritual portraits” project, which continued with 2007’s Useless on designer Ma Ke and her latest fashion line. In Useless, instead of a sequence as in Dong, it is its three-part structure that ties the individual (artist) to massive aforementioned shifts, not to mention other individual, more marginalized voices and figures: it significantly sandwiches the portrait of Ma and her haute couture aesthetic between the first part’s focus on workers in Guangdong clothing factories and the last part’s look at a small-scale, community-geared sewing business in Shanxi Province.

After an extended hiatus, Jia has finally concluded his “Artists Trilogy” with Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue. This time, Jia turns his attention to four main subjects: the late Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong. All four subjects are writers whose works span the decades following the Communist victory in the civil war and whose individual trajectories, memories, and experiences are put in dialogue with the large-scale events that swept through China from 1949 to the present. This dialogue between the individual and historical is thus in the same vein as framing Liu and his paintings within the vast environment of demolition and displacement of communities and the people put to work in making it happen in the service of the building of the Three Gorges Dam in Dong. It is also in the same vein as locating Ma within the socio-economic spaces of factory workers and the ever shrinking localised sewing industry that nearly wrly comment on the creation of her fashion line for the global market in Useless. For Swimming, then, it is no accident that Jia specifically chose these four writers since they were born in different, succeeding decades, which highlights their distinct experiences as well as the different historical events that parallel these experiences. Sit-down interviews with each writer occupy center stage in the film and are simultaneously intimate, moving, humourous, and deeply rooted in the personal of their remembering. Though likely to be overshadowed by his fiction features, particularly his most recent spate of films since 2013, Swimming is no less important nor emotional — and the trilogy of which it is a part — for its role in Jia’s ongoing filmic chronicling of rural-urban connections, changes, and migrations. And, in truth, of the films constituting the trilogy, Swimming is by far the most complex and memorable from a structural point of view, whimsically constructed in eighteen chapters and with even brief clips from his films injected into the mix.

The film’s point of departure regarding its main subjects was the first edition of the Lüliang Literature Festival held in 2019 in Fenyang, Shanxi Province, Jia’s place of birth. Jia Pingwa (b.1952), Yu Hua (b.1960), and Liang Hong (b.1973) were among the attendees of the festival, organised in part as a way for not only locals but also those who had relocated to big cities to reconnect with both rural-based literature and the spaces that inspired them and have since transformed. In fact, footage of the various writer attendees from the festival is included in the film. Notably, this footage also marks the transition from the first couple of chapters dealing with the 1950s and Ma Feng’s (1922-2004) move from Beijing to Shanxi, specifically Jia Family Village, which galvanised him into writing on the rural, to the rest of the film’s focus on the other three writers. Indeed, the sequence that moves from Ma Feng to Jia Pingwa by way of the festival is perhaps the film’s key moment: the scenes that demarcate chapters constituting the transition — and the chapter titles themselves (“returning home,” “the old and the new,” “sound,” and “journeys”) — are characterised by the backward-forward movement of the past and present colliding while also nodding to the future. What is more, it is during this sequence that Jia inserts clips from Platform (2000) and Xiao Wu (1997) as part of the tapestry of this transition, which very subtly positions him as another such author who has been charting such movement in his own manner and choice of medium.

While the historic processes or events of collectivisation, the Cultural Revolution, the arrest of the Gang of Four, among others, are present in the series of interviews with Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong, they nevertheless remain latent presences in the conversations in favour of very local, community-/family- and rural-based perspectives and individual feelings/experiences, to which the chapter titles attest. Apart from chapters named according to the interviewees, the rest of the titles are modest in nature. For instance, chapter one is simply named “eating” and the chapters centering on Liang Hong are generically titled  “mother,” “father,” “sister,” and “son.” Among the conversations, the most poignant are those with Yu Hua and Liang Hong. The former is perhaps most well known to western audiences through his 1993 novel To Live, on which Zhang Yimou’s 1994 film of the same name is based. (One of the chapters of Yu Hua’s section is in fact titled “to live.”) Listening to him recount some of his youthful/young adult experiences is just charming in their detail. Most poetic is the anecdote of reading books passed on from person to person or by mail on a monthly basis: more often than not, they had missing pages, prompting him to exclaim how he was “haunted by those missing endings.” With Liang Hong, the film as an oral history project from the bottom up truly surfaces, speaking as she does of her family members and the rather hard lives that they led following her mother’s stroke.

Also part of this oral history from the bottom up are the performative interludes of social actors reciting lines from these writers’ works against the backdrop of rural areas or humble interiors. In this way, Jia makes literal the poetic energy that springs from the connection between the countryside and identity (community and individual), a connection whose erosion and rekindling has arguably been one of the major thematic threads and motivations of his films, documentary or otherwise.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is in US theaters from May 28 from The Cinema Guild.