Zhang Ke Jia is one of the most prominent of the ‘Sixth Generation’ film makers, but remains obscure in his own country. His films are seldom seen in China (2004’s ‘The World’ was the first to be officially recognised by the state), which he neatly parodies in ‘Unknown Pleasures’, when a buyer asks an illegal DVD vendor for copies of ‘Xiao Wu’ and ‘The Platform’. The films of the ‘Sixth Generation’ examine contemporary issues in Chinese society that other film makers do not address, such as poverty, unemployment and prostitution. Using non-professional actors, Zhang’s major pre-occupation is the alienated, ‘lost’ generation in China; the teenagers and twentysomethings who have been left out by the recent economic boom, and feel as if they have no place in society. Both ‘Xiao Wu’ and ‘Unknown Pleasures’ are filmed on digital video in a realist and minimalist fashion.
‘Xiao Wu’ focuses on the exploits of its eponymous protagonist. A pickpocket who continues to commit petty thefts despite regular arrests, he reminds one of Michel, the ‘Pickpocket’ of Robert Bresson’s masterpiece; unable to change and drawn to the trade that will prove his undoing. A former accomplice of Xiao Wu named Xiao Yong has used his criminal instinct to make good in the era of burgeoning capitalism. Though he makes his money from running seedy clubs and trafficking cigarettes, his enterprises have sufficient respectability to ensure he is nominated for an entrepreneurship award, with the minor television publicity that follows. A local policeman, who is kind and paternal, and obviously wants for Xiao to mend his ways, wishes that he could follow the lead of his friends, who now stay on the right side of the law. Xiao’s friends have deserted him. Their economic success has allowed them to remould themselves into reputable citizens, and Xiao Yong has found himself a fiancée from a good family. Xiao has not been invited to the wedding because Xiao Yong is embarrassed by him and naturally does not wish for people to know he used to be a petty thief. Even though Xiao Yong half-heartedly pretends this isn’t the case, Xiao knows the real reasons, and suggests that Xiao Yong “takes a look at his tattoo” to remind himself from where he came.
Possible redemption comes in the form of Mei Mei, a singer in a karaoke bar, which masquerades as a brothel. Mei Mei has dropped out of school, yet regularly calls her family and says all is going well and that she is studying hard. When she is ill, he visits her and looks after her; the only tenderness each other has known. Singing to her to make her feel better, he is drowned out by the constant loud traffic noises from outside. Two young people on the periphery of society, Xiao summarises their predicament when he tells her “It isn’t easy nowadays”. When Mei Mei is later sold to a wealthy client, Xiao tries to remonstrate with the brothel keeper, who pours scorn at the suggestion that Xiao might have ‘bought her’ with his ‘dirty money’ (she knows what he does for ‘a living’). Returning home to his family who live in a small village, Xiao incurs their wrath when he asks why the ring he bought for Mei Mei and then gave to his mother is being worn by his brother’s fiancée, and then expelled for not respecting family rules. The family then make known to Xiao that they also know that he is a thief, and that he has brought shame upon them.
Despite being an obviously talented pickpocket, Xiao is naturally caught eventually, when he tries to steal a pager that goes off as soon as he’s stolen it. He was stealing it so that he could keep in touch with Mei Mei, so it is the first instance in which a theft was committed for someone else’s benefit. As was previously mentioned, the film is set during a particularly repressive period of clamping down on petty criminals. In custody, he sees the television broadcast about his arrest. Interviews with the public and his friends contain unsympathetic and condemnatory remarks, that he deserves his fate. In the film’s final scene, Xiao is publicly shamed, tied in the street whilst rounded on by people who stare at him with disgust.
‘Unknown Pleasures’ focuses on two protagonists, Xiao Ji and Bin Bin, who are pretty much cut from the same cloth as Xiao Wu. Aimless, alienated youngsters misunderstood by their parents, they spend their days smoking, hanging around, generally doing very little constructive. Bin Bin is told by his mother “you’re no good”, and that he should enlist in the army, though he is rejected when he tries, because he has Hepatitis C. Both youths have romantic dilemmas of their own. Bin Bin is seeing a young girl who has aspiration to study international trade in Beijing. It’s a strange and incompatible relationship with no real physical contact, let alone affection of any kind. They hardly talk; just spending their time watching television, singing along to the songs on music channels until their inevitable parting when she leaves to study. She has ambitions, he has none – they will surely drift apart. Xiao Ji on the other hand takes a shine to the girlfriend of a local hoodlum. His lines to impress her include “I’ll make you soften as fast as instant noodles”; though of course it’s all bravado. Once she makes a move, he’s hopelessly out of his depth. Still, she finds respect and love from him, which is more than can be said for her boyfriend who treats her badly and sees her as little more than a ‘trophy girlfriend’. Xiao Ji is confronted by him and his friends who ‘persuade’ Xiao Ji to steer clear of Qiao Qiao, though he cannot be deterred in his romantic endeavours.
Xiao Ji and Bin Bin are youths with their head in the clouds, distracted by the images they see on television and culture imported from the United States. Xiao Ji talks about ‘Pulp Fiction’, clearly in admiration of Ringo and Yolando’s hold up of the diner. Like Xiao Wu, these boys consider that crime is the only possibility open for them; the only way to escape their rut, the only proactive act they are capable of. In a nice twist, Xiao Wu returns, this time as a legitimate businessman, so he finally cleaned up his act and joined the class of “respectable criminals”. They later devise a plan to hold up a bank using a fake bomb, which of course turns into a disaster. Bin Bin is caught, and Xiao Ji escapes, though he fails to get too far as his motorcycle runs out of petrol. Bin Bin explains his (and Xiao Ji’s) situation to his girlfriend; “there’s no fucking future”).
Both films use contemporary events to discuss the changing face of China. In ‘Unknown Pleasures’, we see a group of townsfolk eagerly watching the announcement of the award of the 2008 Olympics, and several news reports, including one that mentions the building of a new highway from Datong to Beijing, refer to China’s international status and economic growth. In ‘Xiao Wu’, an image of Mao on a bus suggests that the shadow of Mao still hangs over Chinese society, but has made great strides since his death and the policies of economic liberalisation have been implemented. This has come at a price however as China is plagued by the kind of social problems that Zhang’s films focus upon, primarily prostitution and poverty in these two films.