Negotiating between propaganda and the private

Jia Zhangke’s latest offers a deep dive into personal memories within the tissue of state-sanctioned fiction.

By Maja Korbecka

© X Stream Pictures

At first, Jia Zhangke’s SWIMMING OUT TILL THE SEA TURNS BLUE (YI ZHI YOU DAO HAI SHUI BIAN LAN, China) seems to embrace a talking-heads documentary set-up in the director’s home province of Shanxi. The film, which screened in the Berlinale Special sidebar, follows Jia’s career-long mission to give a cinematic account of unofficial history based on common people’s memory. That said, blasting compositions by Shostakovich and Rachmaninov to score majestic shots of Chinese farmland strikes as an odd choice. How should one make sense of such extreme contrasts?

Split into 18 chapters, SWIMMING OUT TILL THE SEA TURNS BLUE offers a chronicle of China’s contemporary history as told by several inhabitants of Jia’s Family Village. Among them, the daughter of a key local activist and intellectual Ma Feng, as well as three contemporary writers of different generations: Jia Pingwa (b. 1952, Shaanxi), Yu Hua (b. 1960, Zhejiang) and Liang Hong (b. 1973, Henan). Seventy years of Chinese history spanning from the civil war years up until the capitalist reforms offer a fragmented, complex portrait of a whole nation.

Visually, the film offers a perceptive account of the contemporary Chinese reality, where a multifaceted sense of progress allows brand sneakers to coexist with traditional Chinese opera and Tomb-Sweeping celebrations. Rapid editing of footage recorded at a literary festival makes the film come dangerously close to a promotional video commissioned by the provincial government. But SWIMMING OUT TILL THE SEA TURNS BLUE is the outcome of difficult negotiations, and a filmmaker’s own aspirations that exceed film art – which prompts us to interpret it in a context that goes beyond reviews preoccupied by and large with the film’s monotonous rhythms.

Although the narrative is fragmented, the common epic thread of homecoming and celebration of localism brings to mind the Chinese propaganda concept of “main melody”: a state-sanctioned narrative approach that pivots on national pride, affirmed through shared difficulties and suffering, which are eventually overcome. It is an idea that infuses all genres and characterises some of the highest-grossing Chinese blockbusters of 2019, such as THE WANDERING EARTH or MY PEOPLE, MY COUNTRY.

Despite the pressures of main melody filmmaking, SWIMMING OUT TILL THE SEA TURNS BLUE ends with a crack that destroys the illusion, and breaks the narrative continuity of the fictional world. A final glitch in the presumably true documentary narrative reveals the rebellious spirit buried deep into the main melody scaffolding. Even as it engages with state-approved storytelling, Jia's filmmaking still refuses to lie.