AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
MADE IN CHINA – SEEN IN VENICE
‘WU YONG’ MAKES A FASHION STATEMENT
by Harlan Kennedy
Clothes were everywhere at Venice this year. Everyone wore them, on screen and off. In some movies they took them off, then put them on again (Ang Lee’s LUST, CAUTION). In others they put them on, then took them off. In others still, the characters chose their clothes like chameleons artfully responding to environmental prompts. Who can forget Tilda Swinton’s Amazonian chic as a company lawyer in MICHAEL CLAYTON, her jackets winged and buttressed as if initiating a Pallas Athene fashion line, or the neoclassical swains and shepherdesses in Eric Rohmer’s LOVES OF ASTREE AND CELADON, dressed in Arcadian prêt a porter, or the enchanted oddities (fish shoes, magic veils) that served as everyday raiment in Jiang Wen’s THE SUN ALSO RISES.
Offscreen it was a little different. There were real and regular mortals on the Lido – like me and my colleagues – living in a real and regular world. Many or most of our clothes, by statistical probability, will have been made in China. But even more probably, none of our clothes were designed in China. Couturiers don’t exist there; or none we’ve heard of; or none until now.
Then along comes Jia Zhang-ke’s WU YONG (USELESS). This cracking essay on the garment trade won the Venice Film Festival’s Best Documentary prize. It makes Jia a two-in-a-row winner of high honours at the Mostra del Cinema. Last year he got the Golden Lion for STILL LIFE, his tragicomedy about China’s changing society in a time of economic acceleration and the ruthless top-down destruction of old ways.
WU YONG also responds to a changing country. Ma Ke, widely dubbed China’s first fashion designer, has hand-created clothes that respond to Chinese mythology, Chinese contemporary reality and the layers within layers of Chinese history. The Paris fashion show where her creations are first presented to an international audience is like something out of Kubrick’s 2001. Light bursts slowly, dawn-of-time style, over a stage studded with immobile, pedestalled figures garbed in primitive outfits of grey, brown and silver. It looks like a multi-gender version of the Terracotta Army, or a convocation of characters from some forgotten or never-existent folklore epic.
This isn’t how WU YONG begins, though it’s the film’s most apocalyptic moment. Jia Zhang-ke sets up his movie with scenes in a sweatshop, the kind of clothing foundry with which outsiders are more likely to associate China. In a hangar the size of Tiananmen Square – and to judge by puddles and leak stains almost as open to the elements – human Nibelungs slave away at sewing machines. Lateral tracking shots lay open this vast panorama (like a scene from a Fritz Lang movie) in a slow, mute prelude. Soon we visit the canteen, the recreation hall, and the factory’s medical clinic, kept busy with real complaints and injuries and some that look like skyving. Finally, back in the Nibelungs’ hall, Jia’s camera dollies in towards a single worktable in this hive of labour – which we have now learned is the South China Garment Industry Building – to discover a lone lady at work on clothes for, the labels read, ‘Emporio Exception.’ It’s a little coup de cinema: she may be the only person slaving for an artist-designer, rather than for a world-circling consumer chain, in this whole mighty space.
‘Exception’ is an early Ma Ke line. Her newest line, we learn when we meet the designer herself, playing with her dogs at home, is called ‘Wu Yong.’ Literally, in the film’s English-translated title, ‘Useless’. (‘Functionless’ might be a kinder rendering). The clothes are wu yong because they are declamatorily, almost Dadaistically non-pragmatic. They belong to no known fashion currency. They include austere monkish tunics, cumbrous frocks with stiff toutou-style skirts, giant cloaks in what seems to be embossed burlap. They are garments that could have been dug out from some gigantic communal grave (with or without their owners inside), caked and discoloured by mud and time. But beautiful with it.
Useless? In a way. I doubt we’ll see the average Chinese worker cycling around in this stuff. Nor will the average suit-wearing Chinese boss swap his Armani-style, Hong Kong-made knockoffs for one of Ma Ke’s placeless, timeless brainstorms.
But for Jia Zhang-ke the Wu Yong line is something more than a candidate for the madhouse; and more, at the other extreme, than tomorrow’s craze in the high street. It is, in every sense, a fashion statement. “It’s a challenge to China’s rapid development and a kind of rebellion,” Jia has commented. “It challenges the obliteration of memory, the over-exploitation of natural resources, and the speed at which all this is happening.” (Exactly the themes of his STILL LIFE).
It challenges them by hinting at a Chinese character and history that underlie all the changes China has gone through. ‘Underlie’ in the sense ‘lie buried’. Some of Ma Ke’s clothes were actually interred in earth for a period to give them their own – as it were – narrative DNA. This Chinese essence that Wu Yong seeks to express is a sort of forthright yeoman endurance laced with mystical aspiration and transcendence. These garments belong, at one end of the Chinese spectrum, to a landscape of yaks and yurts; at the other to the grimly heroic survival instinct that has outlived early Maoism and is still outliving its late, posthumous successor.
Says Ma Ke in the film’s notes: “I want to explore the value of life through my clothes.” Says Jia Zhang-ke: “I’m using clothes as a medium for looking at society.”
He is. Ma Ke’s work lies at the centre of WU YONG. But the film doesn’t begin with it, nor end with it. The prelude is the gargantuan sweatshop. Then comes the aspirational main section, all about how clothes – the pun insists on being made – Ma Ke’th the man and how the man and woman, and their world and history, Ma Ke’th the clothes. Finally the film makes landfall in a humane and human postlude.
This closing segment is about the plight of China’s village and small-town tailors, whom mass production has pushed into Poverty Corner. Most of these people have given up garment work altogether or stitch a fragile living from repairs and alterations. It’s a contrast to the brief glimpse we get earlier of rich matrons in Mainland China’s ‘Friends of Vuitton’ club, or even richer ones cooing about their Prada and Dior collections.
As in his feature films – UNKNOWN PLEASURES, THE WORLD, STILL LIFE – Jia Zhang-ke has the gift of conjuring articulacy from silence. His comment is to make no comment at all. He just sets different stories next to each other. He pushes different groups of people into the spotlight, one after another, and asks us to sit by the catwalk and mark our cards.
It’s an uncanny style for a movie on a deeply canny theme: the direction and destination of China’s soul now that China, capitalism’s newest conscript, has done so much to sustain its body. Jia has made a film of apparent contradictions about a country of evident contradictions. The paradox of WU YONG the movie is its determination to promote an elite and presumably expensive fashion line in a movie that elsewhere decries greed and consumerism. But this paradox dissolves as it becomes clear that the Wu Yong garments are art objects – and look likely to remain so – rather than shop-window items.
The paradox of China herself is that it is dispatching its consumerism and culture to all parts of the world but is still an anxiously secretive society with a jealously dirigiste government. Is the birth of fashion a new gap – a chink of enlightened individualism – in the wall of philistine autocracy? Or will it be another means for China to sell its ‘progressive’ image abroad while keeping life regressive and repressive at home?
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved