Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝, Jia Zhangke, 2020)

Returning to his rural hometown, Jia Zhangke embarks on an alternate history of China in the 20th century through the prism of literature in the poetically titled documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝, Yīzhí Yóu Dào Hǎishuǐ Biàn Lán). Taking its title from an off the cuff though strangely profound comment from the witty and loquacious Yu Hua, Swimming is the third in a loose series of documentaries focussing on artists following Dong and Useless each of which were completed over a decade ago. 

Signalling his intentions early on, Jia opens with a lengthy sequence of elderly people in a canteen. The first of his 18 chapters is titled simply “eating”, and as we quickly infer hunger will be a constant background presence for each of our writers who recount their sometimes difficult rural childhoods and the paths which eventually led to them becoming chroniclers of provincial life. The earliest stretches are dedicated to legendary author Ma Feng who passed away in 2004 but it’s some time before we even get to his literary work, struck as we are by his role as an agrarian moderniser who ingeniously saved his village through collective action, bringing the villagers together in a plan to purify the water before irrigation to reduce the alkaline quality of the soil which had made it impossible to farm. Eventually we’re introduced to Ma’s daughter who begins to fill in his biography from a personal perspective while explaining how it was that he came to be known for his naturalistic depictions of the lives of ordinary rural folk in the early days of Communism. 

That idealism soon takes on a darker hue, however, in the story of Jia Pingwa who recounts his childhood during the Cultural Revolution in which his father was sent sent away for “re-education” after being falsely accused of receiving training as a KMT spy in the ‘40s. In Jia Pingwa’s early childhood eating was indeed a concern, something which he later says caused tension in the family that was only eased by the presence of his grandmother but even she couldn’t keep them all together after the institution of the communal kitchen. Perhaps more austere than you’d expect, Jia Pingwa admonishes his daughter, also a published poet, that she should fulfil her role as a wife and mother before that as artist, and that being a poet doesn’t always mean one lives poetically. Nevertheless he recounts the widening of horizons which occurred as China began to open up in 1980s, an influx of foreign art that introduced him to “the West” but also left him in an artistic quandary in the search for new yet authentic directions. 

A little younger than Jia Pinghua, the 1980s is when the extremely animated Yu Hua came of age, revealing an unexpected effect of the Cultural Revolution that led to his artistic destiny as he found himself re-imagining the endings of books which had long since fallen apart and existed for him only in fragments. Training first as a dentist but finding it not to his liking, Yu Hua longed to broaden his horizons and began writing seriously with the hope of getting a better job, eventually enrolling in university in Beijing in 1989 which he recounts somewhat incongruously as cheerfully uneventful. 

There is indeed a kind of micro framing in Jia’s concentration on rural China as a place to one side of wider society or politics. Just as Yu Hua casually ignores the reasons why others might find it interesting to have been a student in Beijing in 1989, Liang Hong opens by recounting that the year was 1997 which was the year Hong Kong returned to China but she was so busy that as an event it hardly registered for her. Like Yu and Jia Pingwa she recounts a difficult rural childhood in which her mother was rendered ill and later died due to the demands of country living while her kindhearted though feckless father struggled to manage his small family. While the men concentrate on their own paths, Liang mostly talks of her family, the sister who sacrificed her future for her siblings, and later her own son who talks of learning about his history through mother’s books though he no longer remembers the rural dialect and his associations with the area are mainly to do with playing with his cousins on visits to his mother’s family home. 

Liang’s son is the last and least deliberately staged of Jia’s frequent cutaways to local people reciting brief snippets of literature by the four authors and others often in praise of the land. Between lengthy talking head sequences, he switches from present day to historical stock footage showcasing the lives of ordinary people as they play cards, eat, or hurry on their way from one place to another. Spiralling out and away from Fenyang and back around again what Jia presents is less a literary survey than a rural history which is in its own way also mythologised as the wounded soul of the modern China. 


Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue screens at the BFI Southbank on 24th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Jia Yuchuan, 2019)

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted is someone with whom to live a normal life” Li Ermao explains thinking she’s found it only to have it slip through her fingers once again. Photographer Jia Yuchuan first met Ermao while working on a project with the LGBT community becoming as she describes it something like a big brother. Following her over 17 years, Jia’s documentary The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Tā Tā: Lǐ Èrmáo de Shuāngchóng Rénshēng) witnesses her constant search for acceptance in a rigid and conservative society the pressures of which also contribute to her sometimes self-destructive behaviour. 

As Ermao explains in an opening onstage monologue, she is not a man dressing as a woman though once thought of herself as crossdressing before living as a “ladyboy” and now identifying as a transgender woman. Jia begins in a sense with her high point at which she has achieved a degree of success as a cabaret performer despite having no formal training in singing and is in what seems to be a positive and loving relationship with a young man, Jiang. Things start to go wrong when Ermao fails to capitalise on the possibility of recording an album while her self-destructive gambling habit begins to eat away at her relationship with Jiang who eventually leaves her. 

As Jia explains, Ermao would often drop out of contact with him for unexplained periods of time despite describing him as an indispensable big brother. After another self-destructive episode renting out her spare room to randomers from the internet to escape her loneliness, Ermao next calls Jia to introduce him to her new boyfriend, Long, over whom she has apparently just attempted to take her own life prompting him to call the police which ends both with her being evicted by her fed up landlady and arrested for the possession of illegal drugs. 

Worried about her elderly mother, Ermao takes Long with back to her hometown but quickly finds herself conflicted in this even more conservative environment where she’s “Li Guomin’s son”, the villagers by turns bemused and scandalised by her feminine appearance. Ermao ran away to live on the city streets following the death of her father who, we learn, was a notorious people trafficker who kidnapped and sold women and children including Ermao’s younger brother who he sent away to Hainan while rumoured to have eaten the corpse of the stillborn baby who would have been Ermao’s elder. This might go someway to explaining the animosity with which she is held in the village, along with the fact that as she’s been away so long and was not expected to return other farmers have long since colonised her land and are not minded to return it. Stubborn, Ermao pitches a tent and tries to make a living chicken farming on the tiny patch that remains in the hope of funding the completion of her confirmation surgery but is finally forced out by the local mayor who describes her as an “unwelcome stranger” in their community and asks her leave. 

Falling still further, Ermao finds it impossible to gain steady employment as a transgender woman eventually when getting back touch with Jia having made the decision to essentially detransition, preparing to have her implants removed while presenting as male in order to continue working at a factory producing components for iPhones. She fears her coworkers finding out that she is transgender and for good reason as she’s later brutally beaten by a male middle-aged colleague. Despite this she seems in a sense happier to have been reaccepted by her hometown, but soon finds herself rejected once again on learning that she is HIV+ and coming to the conclusion that she is “harmful to others” and should choose self-isolation. 

Despite their long years of friendship, Jia is not always sympathetic to Ermao’s plight nor does he condone her sometimes self-destructive behaviour or tendency to overdramatise while uncomfortably asking where a woman like Ermao belongs in the contemporary society before finding that it may have no real place for her. Rejected in the city and finding no refuge in her hometown, Ermao’s reversion to a male persona cannot help but feel like a defeat, her gradual decline from brassy cabaret star to melancholy recluse a result of her battering at the hands of an unwelcoming society unprepared to accept those who do not conform to its rigid ideas of gender and sexuality.


The Two Lives of Li Ermao screens at Genesis Cinema on 19th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in partnership with Queer East.

People’s Republic of Desire (欲望共和国, Wu Hao, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

People's Republic of Desire PosterCan you outsource a dream? According to Wu Hao’s People’s Republic of Desire (欲望共和国, Yùwàng gòngguó), many in modern China have resigned themselves to doing just that. Feeling lonely, disconnected, hopeless, they turn to people just like them who’ve been luckier and have not yet decided to give up the fight. Video streaming service YY acts like the future’s version of pirate radio, lining up a selection “personalities” male and female offering pretty much anything from stand up comedy and political diatribes to off key singing and a window into someone else’s every day life from breakfast to dinner. Of course, it all comes at a price – one which YY gleefully takes a 60% cut of, but there are hidden costs too – to a society, to the deluded fans, and even to the aspiring stars themselves forced into various debasing acts in the knowledge that their time in the spotlight will soon come to an end.

Wu follows two very different YY stars – 21-year-old former nurse Shen Man, and Big Li – a former migrant worker whose rough voice and man’s man attitudes have endeared him to a host of other “diaosi” fans. “Diaosi”, once an unpleasant slur meaning “loser” and most often applied to those stuck in the lower orders of China’s rapidly increasing social equality gap, has been reclaimed by those who self identify with its sense of ironic hopelessness. As Shen Man explains, YY works as a kind of pyramid system in which millions of dreaming diaosi throw money they don’t really have at online stars in the hope of connection while Tuhao – the nouveau riche looking for new ways to splash the cash, act as patrons deciding the direction of the service.

What many diaosi forget to factor in is that in reality the entire service is run by agents and promoters who push their various stars to steal “votes” from their online fans. YY is not a public service platform, but a vast money making machine which sucks in cash from every conceivable angle. As cynical patron Songge points out, those seeking fame on YY cannot expect to make any money. In order to win the site’s popularity contest, they need to get an agent and their agent will need to spend a vast amount of money to promote them which the star will then need to make back.

Shen Man, on one level naive, is perfectly aware of the way the system works. She knows she needs to keep her fans happy or they’ll leave. Like Big Li she’s a poor girl made good, a figure her female fans can look up to as someone just like them that’s been able to escape the world of diaosi drudgery. Her male fans, by contrast, are probably looking for something different. Some of them like the idea of her ordinariness, that she comes from the same place they do and is therefore attainable while also being unattainable thanks to her quickly acquired wealth which allows her to live the life of a modern princess. There is however a cost. In order to hook more fans the youthful 21-year-old has already spent a lot of money on extensive plastic surgery (perhaps veering dangerously close to destroying her “natural charm” selling point), and is expected to play nice with her sometimes insulting clientele. One patron, chatting idly on the phone, tries to throw money at her in return for sex whilst simultaneously insisting that she’s not like the other YY girls who will do anything for money. Shen Man points out that she has money already and is not that sort of girl while her patron continues along the same line of argument insisting that all you need to do get a girl is flash the cash.

Big Li, by contrast, is much less cynical. He recognises that he’s become a kind of leader for his diaosi brothers and is eager not to let his fans down. Married to YY talent manager Dabao and with a young son to take care of, Big Li is originally grateful for his rock star life, but the pressure begins to get to him and he longs for the simple days of the village filled with the warmth of family and friends rather than the lonely false connection of YY’s race to fame mentality. Big Li genuinely cares, but this is his downfall. He wants the freedom that YY promises and refuses to play the game, but the game continues to play him.

Adoration quickly to hate. Shen Man finds herself out in the cold when she is publicly slut shamed, accused of taking money from fans in return for sexual favours, earning the nickname of “300 Man” as a woman who can be brought so cheaply she has no value at all. The constant double standard – that she must be beautiful and desirable, yet pure and chaste, has something to say about the nature of China’s conservative social values even in a modernising age. Once your reputation has gone it cannot be rebuilt and even the loyalist fans will find themselves moving on. Big Li might not have to put up with the same kind of pressures as Shen Man, but is personally hurt when fans call him “scammer” because of his constant failures to take home the big prize.

So what of the fans themselves? There are those who’ve made vast amounts money thanks to China’s rapidly modernising economy and don’t know what to do with it other than show off by giving it away. They too are trying to buy connection through becoming patrons, “owning” someone less fortunate and taking pleasure in dictating their lives. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the scale, the diaosi have all but given up on their own dreams and so “enjoy” investing money to “support” the dreams of those just like them out of a sense of frustrated solidarity.

The picture Wu paints of modern China is one of a world spiralling out of control in which intense loneliness and alienation have corrupted the nature of social connection. Money rules all. Wealth is all that matters and in the crowded online world, if you want to be noticed you’ll have to pay. Interactions are bought and paid for with petty, entirely virtual trinkets, while in the offline world all there is is work and sleep and cheap fast food. Only the platform is the winner, as one unlucky hopeful puts it. The sad truth is that everyone knows it’s a losing game and has resigned themselves to conceding defeat in a society already leaving them behind.


People’s Republic of Desire was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)