Is Jia Zhang-ke’s Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue public art or political art? This documentary about survival in the People’s Republic of China appeals to our humanist sympathies, yet current conditions make it seem like propaganda.
The gray, carefully modeled, lifelike sculptures of ethnic Chinese people displayed in the film’s opening shots are evocative of what used to be called “Family of Man” portraiture. The genre was named after Edward Steichen’s legendary 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition that collected international photo essays about “the gamut of life from birth to death.” But today, such a panoply feels different. Jia Zhang-ke’s doc exhibition uses humanist portraiture deceptively. Its woebegone people — faces and facts devoid of political analysis — are like an army of the brainwashed. This looks like Chinese Communist life as Western progressives want to romanticize it.
Hardship that normally stirs empathy instead, in socialist terms, inspires political need for justice, equality, and nostalgic allegiance. Swimming Out promotes this ideological switch through several hard-luck stories familiar to American leftists, specifically that of China’s literary elite. It focuses on four authors, Jia Pingwa, Ma Feng, Liang Hong, and Yu Hua. Americans might be familiar with Yu Hua, whose 1994 novel To Live was filmed by Zhang Yimou in a style of neorealist melodrama similar to that of Swimming Out.
Jia Zhang-ke has recently embarked on several semi-documentaries that, while personalized, closely align with official Chinese representation. Proving himself an ambassador for the lifestyles of our chief adversary/competitor, he’s conscious of social conditions as such, but his films make peace with the difficulties that occur as a result of Communist restrictions.
Leftist American critics who overpraised Platform (2000), Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004), and A Touch of Sin (2013) seem to love Jia Zhang-ke as a harbinger of political possibilities for America. But every time I see a Jia Zhang-ke film, I get stuck on the difficulties, the trials and prohibitions that are in the background of every story he tells. (Ash Is Purest White, from 2018, is the exception, mainly for Tao Zhao’s magnetic performance as a no-nonsense survivor.) Swimming Out is a reminder that what’s promising for progressives will seem fascist for most Americans.
Jia Zhang-ke’s common-man interviews recall how Warren Beatty’s Reds paid attention only to “witnesses” who were also political celebrities. As in Reds, the individual testimonies here beg our indulgence of political habitués — no dissenters welcome. Liang Hong recalls an old man who believes in Communism because he sold a kilo of seed to the government. Should Americans admire this example of obedience? Or the stories about scarcity? Or restrictive social customs? Or nostalgic reminiscences about mass mobilization during the Cultural Revolution? Is this information or indoctrination?
Yu Hua tells about reading books with torn covers and pages that are missing titles or authors, but he excuses the deprivation by strangely recalling “The Internationale” and its atheist, collectivist lyric “There are no supreme saviors / We need to save ourselves.” “In the 1990s, especially after Deng Xiaoping toured Southern China, the whole nation went into business,” Yu Hua recalls. “The result was economic prosperity.” But he also details the moment’s dehumanization: “Some who’d become writers like me abandoned their careers to become entrepreneurs. People who’d been together went their separate ways.” This testimony isn’t as moving as Chen Kaige’s Caught in the Web, from 2012, a non-ambivalent depiction of emotional complexity and regret in the age of social media.
Swimming Out’s sentimentality often seems controlled, as if under duress. It’s easy to imagine this film’s elitist sympathy for the distant threats of oppression being endorsed by PEN International. Jia Zhang-ke’s vague intentions make this the most dubious of recently imported foreign-language films. Its overly poetic, quasi-humanism about the gamut of life from birth to death seems more official than universal. Jia Zhang-ke’s humanist portraits never transcend politics, unlike the ecstatic nature celebration in the Soviet master Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1931) was ecstatically both. These days, film culture operates on different territory.