starring Hong Wei Wang, Tao Zhao, Jing Dong Liang, Tian Yi Yang
written and directed by Jia Zhang-Ke
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover To recommend or not to recommend Jia Zhang-ke's Platform? The question depends on who you are. For those with even a passing interest in Chinese cinema and culture, it's virtually mandatory viewing: the film is one of the most dense and nuanced portraits of a society in transition from any nation I can think of, and for Westerners it puts a face to events that we normally hear mentioned only in passing. Those seeking narrative thrills, however, had better look elsewhere, because Platform's glacial pace and oppressive mise-en-scène are calculated to test the patience of even the most sympathetic viewer. But even though the film is tough slogging at times (a circumstance I attribute to its having been re-edited for export), those with intellectual priorities are advised to get on this Platform and ride the train to the last stop.
The film is very good in dealing with the cost of China's move from pure communism to the uncharted waters of capitalism. Beginning in 1979, it examines the impact of the new economy on a small-town, state-funded performance troupe; as the young performers go from singing chirpy praises to Chairman Mao to performing in "The All-Star Rock 'n' Breakdance Extravaganza," it becomes obvious that not all the changes have been for the good. There is, of course, some early champing at the communist bit: As the musical children affect Western styles in a desire to transcend the prosaic limits of their hometown, the pooh-poohing of their parents seems like typical fuddy-duddyism about to be swept away by the joy of pop.
Yet nothing is transcended. The walls of the town seem just as large as they sell the troupe to businessmen and are dispersed, and the distances they have to travel are just as wide. The difference is that they are left to their own devices instead of protected by the state--they have to sing for their supper, as it were, and become alienated as a result. And their disappointment is mirrored elsewhere in society: a father uses his new store to avoid his family, and a new mine offers piddling compensation for potential disaster. In the end, the dreams the performers must peddle become distraction from what is really happening. Like the capitalist way, it promises much and offers little.
At least initially, Platform's aesthetic tries to give presence to their feelings of ennui and dissatisfaction. Making excellent use of their high-walled Chinese backwater, Zhang-ke wisely shies away from close-ups. As the characters are dwarfed by the structures around them or by the wide-open spaces between travelling destinations, he shows that his heroes are being carried off by forces larger than they can fathom and a logic that can't even imagine their existence. The look is utterly distinctive; while the compositions bear a certain passing resemblance to those of the more popular but less thoughtful Fifth Generation Chinese films, Zhang-ke is more casual and less studied, humanely giving breathing room to his beleaguered characters as they are sucked from their Maoist idealism and into the brutal world of hustling for a buck.
Unfortunately, the doom-laden aesthetic gets to be a little too much by film's end; there is so little variation in the technique and so little respite from the enveloping dread that for long stretches the film is a chore. Perhaps it's asking too much to expect levity under these circumstances, but I wanted to see more of people using the music that is less depicted than talked about. This is a problem that may be the result of some thirty-odd minutes being cut from the original version; I'm told that the majority of cuts involved musical numbers, and if that's true, Zhang-ke and his backers have made a terrible mistake. When the troupers leaven their misery with the title pop song on the radio, the irony is electric, and I suspect that there is more of that irony--and fewer stretches of monotony--in the uncut version.
As it stands, the film often founders on its own desultory mood, which is flawlessly rendered but far too pervasive to do more than beat us down. For those with patience and curiosity, the film will ultimately reap major dividends, and it is to those people that the film is primarily addressed. Whatever its shortcomings, Platform shows that ideas have consequences--even when they're the wrong ones. Originally published: June 1, 2002.