Written by Michael Clawson
A leading light in modern Chinese cinema, filmmaker Jia Zhangke is far better known for his fiction work than his documentaries. That’s not exactly surprising. Jia is widely regarded for his incisive explorations of political, cultural, and economic upheaval in his home country, and while his thematic preoccupations are consistent across his fiction and non-fiction films, the use of genre in his recent narrative features – wuxia in A Touch of Sin (2013), melodrama in Mountains May Depart (2015), gangster epic in Ash is Purest White (2018) – brings thrills and stylization that, for better or worse, tend to garner more attention and conversation than talking head interviews usually do. Swimming Out Till the Sea Blue, Jia’s newest documentary, is made up almost entirely of interviews, many of them lengthy, with Chinese literary figures from various generations. Insightful, crisply shot, and elegantly edited together, it’s a more than worthy new entry in Jia’s filmography, no matter that it contains nothing as obviously sensational as Zhao Tao wielding a knife or pistol.
Swimming Out’s focus is primarily on four Chinese writers: Ma Feng (1922-2004), Jia Pingwa (b. 1952), Yu Hua (b. 1960), and Liang Hong (b. 1973). Always the expert in mapping personal histories and experiences onto broader changes in China, Jia interviews these figures, and in the case of Ma Feng, their families and acquaintances, not to investigate their artistic process or take stock of their bodies of work, but rather to explore how they were impacted by transformations in China throughout the 20th century. Jia Pingwa, for example, while sitting in his home, recalls food shortages and his father being condemned as a counter-revolutionary during the Cultural Revolution. Yu Hua remembers how, during a period of economic prosperity in the ‘90s, many of his peers gave up writing and went into business. Between interviews, Jia turns his camera towards crowds and pedestrians, surveying the faces of both the young and old as if he were looking for marks of history left on their skin.
The act of remembrance is central to Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue. It’s less a documentary about Chinese literature than it is about four Chinese writers reflecting on the context in which they produced their work. Jia doesn’t hurry his subjects, using long scene lengths to give each writer’s stories and comments time to breath, and gives structure to the film by dividing it into 18 nondescriptly named chapters (the first chapter is titled “Eating,” the second, “Love”). He finds common refrains across conversations, chief among them being the contrast between urban and rural living that decades of urbanization and migration toward city centers has made stark. “The place you’re born is the place that half-buries you. That’s why ‘birthplace’ is also called ‘blood land’.” So reads a quote by Jia Pingwa, one of numerous pieces of text that appear on-screen over the course of the film. If that’s true, it suggests that a person who grows disconnected from their roots is bound to experience a sense of dislocation and longing. Swimming Out Till the Sea Blue suggests that such feelings are ones many Chinese today are wrestling with.
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue Trailer
Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is currently playing on MUBI.
Michael Clawson is a member of the Seattle Film Critic Society you can follow his passion for film on Letterboxd.