A Changing China: An Introduction to Jia Zhang-ke

Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke on the set of “Mountains May Depart.” Via Kino Lorber.
Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke on the set of “Mountains May Depart.” Via Kino Lorber.

Chinese master filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke knows how to push boundaries, and has been doing so since the beginning of his directing career in the mid-1990s. NPR critic John Powers once described him as “the most important filmmaker working in the world today.”

Jia has introspected, dissected, analyzed, and looked deeply at the world — his world growing up in Shanxi, China. Shanxi became the namesake and title of his second short film, “Xiao Shan Going Home,” which brought him critical acclaim and captured the world’s eye for the first time.

Jia attended film school at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy where he was able to study both Western and European influences in cinematography. Some of his first attempts at filmmaking with short, independent films, were rebellious from the onset, as was the case with 2000’s “Platform”.


For a period, Jia worked without state subsidy and his films were not sanctioned by the Chinese government. His subjects varied, from tourists in Tiananmen Square to a film about a female college student with choices to make. One choice missing from his productions: a script. Jia did things backwards, did things differently, and he viewed the world with a unique sense of purpose and clarity.

Jia soon became the leader of the Sixth Generation of Chinese Cinema, representing popular counterculture filmmaking. It was underground; it wasn’t state-sanctioned or approved. His work represents those on the fringe with an anti-romantic realism, an expression of frustration with modern capitalism and globalization.


As a filmmaker, Jia has dabbled in a bit of everything, from shooting on 16mm to making digital films for less than $10,000. He has acted in some of his own films, and his actress wife Zhao Tao stars in his latest film “Mountains May Depart,” the next Filmworks screening on April 8.

His awards include Toronto Film Critics Association honors in 2004 for best foreign language film, “The World,” which Filmworks screened in October 2005; the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award in 2008 for “Still Life,” for which he was also nominated best director at the Asian Film Awards; and the best screenplay award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for “A Touch of Sin.”


It seems to me, though, that based on his wide range of styles and subjects that Jia must not care about the awards or the acclaim, or even whether or not his films are widely viewed, abroad or in his home country. He keeps making them. Here he is in his own words, in an interview with the South China Evening Post:

“What matters to me the most is the individual’s place in the world when major changes are unfolding in the background. … As an artist, my biggest concern is not whether the country is happy. What interests me are the experiences that we’re having as human beings.”

Megan Ginise studies journalism and public relations at Fresno State. She currently serves as the Filmworks development assistant.