Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang

It's an unusual match, to be sure: Brazilian director Walter Salles behind the camera of a feature documentary about acclaimed Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke. But while Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang may be somewhat conventional in shape and structure, it also makes for an appropriate pairing of subject and director. There is a self-evident connection between Messrs. Salles and Jia, both directors from "peripheral" cinematographic countries whose work has been acclaimed worldwide while being strongly rooted in a sense of place (even if that place changes from film to film for Mr. Salles, whose last previous film was the earnest but insufficient On the Road in 2012, while remaining mostly static in the Chinese provinces for Mr. Jia).

     Following Mr. Jia across China after the completion of 2013's A Touch of Sin (but before its Chinese premiere, which was eventually blocked by Chinese censors), A Guy from Fenyang works as well for those who have followed the director's work as it does for those who've merely heard of without seeing anything; the film is punctuated by well-chosen excerpts from his features, also used as practical examples of his inspirations and creative choices, from his 1997 debut Xiao Wu up to A Touch of Sin. Intercutting interviews with the director and his regular collaborators (actors Zhao Tao and Wang Hongwei, sound designer Zhang Yang or DP Yu Lik Wai), Mr. Salles creates an engaging yet discreet running commentary of Mr. Jia's cinema, highlighting its central recurring themes while connecting it handily within the personal experiences and inspirations that he has carried into art from real life. 

     Which is not to say Mr. Jia's cinema is autobiographical, but underlines just how contemporary Chinese filmmakers find almost impossible to dissociate the art they make from the country they live in and their surrounding social and political situations. "At a certain level, cinema is very personal", it's said at one point, while admitting that this is a body of work that works on a social level as a record for the future, an attempt of preserving moments and situations of China in the time of the film's creation or storytelling. In many ways, there's a curious parallel between what Mr. Salles is attempting to do with A Guy from Fenyang: create a record for the future about the work of one of the contemporary masters of the film world.

Brazil, 2014, 101 minutes
Directed by Walter Salles; interviews by Mr. Salles and Jean-Michel Frodon; cinematography Inti Briones (colour); film editor Joana Collier; a Videofilmes production
Screened December 1st 2015, Lisbon, Festival de Cinema Luso-Brasileiro de Santa Maria da Feira advance screener


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