(Ren Xiao Yao)

Directed by Jia Zhangke. China/France/Japan/South Korea. 2002.

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Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures is a powerful depiction of the spiritual malaise afflicting Chinese youth as a result of global capitalism. The story is set in a small, impoverished Chinese city in the remote Shanxi province close to the Mongolian border. Two 19-year olds, Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) are heavily influenced by American culture and seem to be motivated only by their own immediate pleasure. They live on the margins in a city where, according to the director, two-thirds of the population were unemployed in 2001. They drink Coke, chain smoke cigarettes, covet U.S. dollars, talk excitedly about Hollywood movies such as Pulp Fiction, and dance to Western-style music at the local club. 

Bin Bin lives with his mother (Bai Ru), who works at a local textile factory and sympathizes with the Falun Gong (a Buddhist religious sect that has been persecuted by the Chinese Communist government). Apathetic and disengaged, with no job and nothing to do, the two friends hang around the local community center playing pool and chatting with the regulars. After trying out for an acting job, Xiao Ji becomes attracted to Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao) whose protective lover is a gangster named Quiao San. Xiao follows her around but seems unable or unwilling to make a move. When they finally go dancing, Xiao has to confront the threats of Quiao San's goons, who finally catch up with him and slap him around. 

Bin Bin also has a girlfriend, Yuan Yuan (Zhou Qing Feng), but their romance seems to consist only in watching movies in a hotel room and singing popular songs with words that echo their own lives. Yuan Yuan seems to have more purpose in life than Bin Bin, and wants to study international trade in Beijing. In an example of the director's wry humour, Xiao Ji puts Yuan's studies in perspective by saying, "WTO is nothing. Just a trick to make some cash," while Bin Bin declares that international trade is about buying rabbits to resell in the Ukraine. With few interests in common, the two slowly drift apart. In a telling scene, as Bin Bin sits in a booth inside a train station staring blankly, Yuan Yuan rides her bicycle around and around, waiting for him to throw off his lethargy and join her. 

Though the boys hear about events in the outside world on television, for example, the winning of the Olympic Games by Beijing and the arrest of the leaders of the Falun Gong in Japan, they don't seem affected. Seemingly inured to unexplained violence, they are just mildly perplexed when a bomb explodes nearby with tragic results. Bin Bin asks whether the United States is attacking China. 

The film is shot in digital video, which enhances its authenticity. Jia avoids pathos and sentimentality, opting for a documentary-style realism that is deeply affecting. Although he focuses on the boys as victims of social and economic dislocation in China, the theme is more about feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and emotional numbness. Jia, one of the best of China's new generation underground "indie" directors, has captured this sense of ennui more palpably than any movie I've seen in a long time. When Xiao finally abandons his sputtering motor bike in the middle of a new superhighway, Jia seems to be suggesting that both he and China itself are at a precarious crossroads in their existence and must discard what isn't working if they are to move on. 

Howard Schumann
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