December 2, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)


Director: Steven Soderbergh

77 min

In between the diminishing returns of the Oceans franchise, Steven Soderbergh has rediscovered his radical, experimental impulse, almost as if in reaction to the commercial dross that he’s worked on since his career was revived with 1998’s ‘Out of Sight’. There was 2002’s ‘Full Frontal’ and 2005’s ‘Bubble’, films he could probably only get made because of his connections and success with more mainstream films. Now we have the next instalment of this type of film making – ‘The Girlfriend Experience’. The critical reception of all of Soderbergh’s more esoteric, arthouse films has always been mixed. It probably doesn’t matter to Soderbergh one iota – as far as he’s concerned, pushing the boundaries of what he’s capable of is what motivates him with these smaller chamber pieces.

The basic premise of ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ is observing the life of a high-class Manhattan escort during the economic downturn. The intriguing casting decision here is to use a real-life pornographic actress in the lead role. I’m assured Sasha Grey is one of the most prolific and successful actresses in her field, but her experience here might only be part of the reason why she was cast. Ms Grey is actually an interesting woman in her own right, with various non-pornographic interests and an apparent rich knowledge of cinema. Indeed, before she settled on her stage name, she toyed with naming herself Anna Karina. As to whether Ms Grey is a competent ‘straight’ actress or otherwise is a matter of debate. Part of the issue is the role she’s assigned. Her Chelsea is a somewhat vacant, vapid woman, who might have a boyfriend who accepts her choice of occupation, but she herself is an emotionally blank canvass. How much did Soderbergh have to encourage her to act or is this just how Ms Grey is, and she is effectively playing herself? Not that this probably matters especially.

The metaphor of prostitution as capitalism has been widely used in cinema since its advent and is hardly in itself original. Godard’s twin films of ‘Vivre Sa Vie’ and ‘Two of Three Things I Know About Her’ are strong examples of this and were reported to have been influences upon ‘The Girlfriend Experience’. But arguably it’s less a film about prostitution per sé and more a film about capitalism in the 21st century. Set against the economic downturn and presidential election of 2008, Soderbergh looks uncertainly at the future. Many of Chelsea’s clients are struggling businessmen and they readily divulge their anxieties about the depression. Chelsea’s own boyfriend, Chris, is an ambitious personal trainer who attempts himself to climb the greasy pole of business, much as his girlfriend does. But is one form of capitalism more ethical than another? Chris ingratiates himself with a bunch of yuppies on their way to a blow-out in Las Vegas, hardly established as the most sympathetic of characters. When Chelsea, newly separated from Chris, lets her emotions and business mix, the results are unsatisfactory. There are hints though at something beneath the surface of Chelsea, though this moment of hubris is a little misjudged.

Where Soderbergh really impresses is with his visuals, as you would expect. The director himself revealed two main influences in terms of the use of colour; Antonioni’s ‘The Red Desert’ and Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’. Notwithstanding the film’s meagre budget, it’s still a striking piece of work. The framing of shots is often distorted for effect, which ties in with the glacial emotional feel of a film that’s clearly under the influence of Antonioni (one of Ms Grey’s favourite film makers as well apparently). It’s very much a non-chronological film, with frequent flashbacks and fast-forwards. Soderbergh remains radical in his approach to film making, controlling all aspects of it from start to finish. However, the film lacks bite and substance. If it is an attack on capitalism and the current financial climate, it’s a pretty vague one. We learn little more about contemporary corporate America than we do about Chelsea herself. ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ is a worthwhile experiment and worth seeing, but with reservations attached.


October 22, 2008

24 City

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:07 pm
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China/Hong Kong/Japan

Director: Jia Zhangke

112 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Chengdu, in the South-West of China, the present day. 420, a state-owned factory that previously produced military parts and equipment and in the more peaceful recent past changed and became a producer of consumer goods, is closing down. The factory comprised part of a wider community, kept secret and isolated from surrounding areas. The entire area has been bought by a private company, who are renovating the area into a modern residential complex, known as 24 City. A filmmaker interviews a number of people whose lives have been shaped by the factory; those who grew up there, those who worked there and those who lived there. These individuals reminisce about the factory and what it means to them, as well as their personal stories living in the community. These include men who have worked at the factory since its heyday in the 1950s, women who were sacked during the start of the decline of the factory in the 1980s, a news anchor reporting on the close of the factory and a young daughter of a worker. As the factory is gradually torn down, the development of the new residential complex becomes more apparent.


Those familiar with the films of Jia Zhangke will not be too surprised by the basis for ’24 City’. Since ‘Xiao Wu’, he has tackled themes arising from China’s successful economic transition since the 1980s. His outlook remains as ambiguous as ever; his main focus is concentrating on those who have been overlooked in the new capitalist China, those whose lives have been affected in the most uncertain fashion. Much like ‘Still Life’, the director investigates the wholesale effects upon an entire community, which has been relocated or lost in the name of economic progress. Jia Zhangke’s previous film featured the demolition of Fengjie, a town that made way for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which displaced over a million Chinese in total. ’24 City’ demonstrates how capitalism is equally unsentimental.

From interviews with older workers, we discover how this community previously moved according to the demands of the state. This community was originally situated in the Northeastern provinces for strategic reasons because of the Chinese intervention in the Korean War. Concerns about an American attack on military factories meant that they were relocated to the Southwest of China, such as 420, now based in Chengdu. This is a similar premise to Xiaoshuai Wang’s ‘Shanghai Dreams’. In both, communities are resettled literally across the entire country (a journey which took 15 days according to one interviewee, who lost her son on the way), without choice, and yet when these communities have outlived their economic use, they are just disregarded and moved on. The factory exists almost as a microcosm for Chinese economic progress since Communist rule began. What began as a military factory became one producing consumer goods for domestic and international use in the 1980s, reflecting Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to open up the Chinese economy. Demands for increased efficiency and output had adverse effects on this community, with many employees losing their jobs because they were competing with other domestic factories producing the same goods. Factories inevitably lost out from competition, which explains the fate of 420, now demolished to accommodate homes for China’s new economic elite. It is not just a factory that is being destroyed but also an entire community, which also included education and recreation facilities, but there is little provision for readjustment. These economic reforms have changed the mindset of the Chinese youth on the other hand. The interviewee played by Tao Zhao, born in 1982, is accustomed to the China’s shifting priorities, and is certainly more money-orientated than her predecessors. Compare her with her parents for instance, and one might suggest a reflection of China’s change from a collectivist economic outlook to entrepreneurial capitalism.

If this makes ’24 City’ and Jia Zhangke’s work in general sound dry and too overtly political to be engaging, then it should not be forgotten that he is also a technically gifted director. Having used animated sequences in ‘The World’ and a UFO in ‘Still Life’, Jia Zhangke eschews realism when necessary to enhance his point. For ’24 City’, he rejects a truly realistic form of documentary, replacing it with a form of docudrama. From the nine interviewees, five are genuine workers from 420 and its community, but four are actors (including Joan Chen and the director’s muse Tao Zhao) whose stories are a composite from those that Jia Zhangke discovered during the film’s production. During the interview with ‘Little Flower’, the character played by Joan Chen, we learn that she was given this nickname from a film of the same name (which is also shown on a TV set) in which Joan Chen acted because of her resemblance to the actress. Of course this is just a cinematic in-joke, but it takes on greater significance because it was a rare pre-Fifth generation film that was more than just political propaganda. In that sense, the films of Jia Zhangke continue that trend of observing China in a distinctly impartial and objective way.

As a symbol of China’s economic progress, ’24 City’ is much more considerable and poignant than even Jia Zhangke imagined because of events that occurred in the Chengdu region recently. In May 2008, a devastating earthquake caused much damage to the area, with 80,000 deaths and another 20,000 injured. This incident reinforces how brittle economic development is in the face of natural disasters in regions already known to be precarious. Yet the rush towards progress demands risk-taking and redeveloping areas regardless of the consequences, whether natural or social.

Not since Antonioni has a director made such effective use of images within each framed shot to reflect his themes. Perhaps the most affecting scene in the film is during the final days of the community – on the roof of an apartment block, a young girl skates, whilst the expressway in the background becomes increasingly busy in grid locked. This scene evidently plays out for some time given that it turns from day to night in this time. It is an impressive juxtaposition of images, the blending of this traditional community and the economically progressive world about to replace it in one frame. Perhaps it acts as a metaphor not only for Jia Zhangke’s films overall but also the modern China; an uneasy balance between convention and evolution, between the past and the future.

October 14, 2008

The World

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:46 pm
Tags: , , ,

China/Japan/France, 2004

Director: Jia Zhangke

With: Tao Zhao, Taisheng Chen, Jue Jing

143 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

China, the present day. The World Park, in the southwestern suburb of Beijing is a 47 acre area of gardens featuring miniatures of over a hundred world famous landmarks and is one of Beijing’s most popular attractions. Tao, a dancer and Taisheng, a security guard are having a relationship that is not without its problems. He is frustrated by her refusal to make love and taunts her because of her virginity.

A number of workers from rural parts of China begin work at the park, as do a group of young Russian women, whose passports are confiscated. Tao begins a budding friendship with Anna, one of the Russian women. While Taisheng flirts with a married fashion designer, Tao rejects the advances of a bar owner who promises her better opportunities. Tao discovers that Anna is now working at the bar, which is nothing more than a strip club. Tao and Taisheng are reunited after the death of his reckless brother and there is an inferred conclusion that the pair dies in a gas explosion.


Whilst the internationally celebrated Fifth Generation of Chinese film makers might have successfully critiqued the repressive society under a Communist leadership, it hasn’t yet really tackled the thriving capitalist economy and the social changes that have resulted from it. This responsibility has fallen onto the Sixth Generation, which has arguably outstripped the previous generation in both relevance and interest now that the Fifth Generation is content with engaging with the Communist establishment it once fiercely reacted against. Wang Xiaoshuai offered his own ambivalent tone towards globalisation and emerging capitalism with ‘Beijing Bicycle’ and ‘Shanghai Dreams’, but the most prominent and respected film maker of his generation is Jia Zhangke. Previously known for his underground films ‘Xiao Wu’ (based on Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket), ‘Platform’ and ‘Unknown Pleasures’, seen as an informal trilogy about China’s rapid path towards modernisation, ‘The World’ arguably surpasses each of these in scope and ambition. Intriguingly, it is the first of Jia Zhangke’s films to be officially approved by the government. This official legitimisation of his work has not compromised his desire to reflect Chinese society as it genuinely is and to highlight the consequences of this social and economic transition.

‘The World’, much like ‘Beijing Bicycle’ and Jia Zhangke’s following film ‘Still Life’ acknowledge that the main foundation of China’s recent economic success is the uprooting of much of the rural population to existing or newly built cities. Both Tai and Taisheng are from the Shanxi province in the North of China, and it is likely that most of the other staff are from similar regions. In addition, there is the influx of overseas workers, demonstrated in the Russian women who are later lured into prostitution after their passports are confiscated. Chinese success might only be achieved upon the utilisation and exploitation of its labour, but these workers are not reaping the benefits of a rapidly growing economy. Jia Zhangke reinforces this point by concentrating on the experiences of the workers, who live in cramped and dilapidated accommodation and earn low wages, rather than the outward glamour of the World Park. Tourist attractions such as these are amongst the few opportunities available to a generation that has been uprooted from its home, but perhaps they are not so despairing compared to the other work available, such as working in sweatshops producing fake fashions and prostitution. Jia Zhangke emphasises that there is a thin line between falling from legal to illegal employment and that China’s economic sense is certainly based upon both.

There is a distinct irony to the film’s title, which reflects not only globalisation and China’s emergence as a major player in international affairs, but also what the World Park offers. The female voiceover that constantly plays around the park proudly boasts that it provides a chance to see the world. Of course this is not really the world, just an imitation. By recreating the world for its people, the World Park actually increases a sense of insularity, dulling one’s enthusiasm to generally see the world outside of China. In this sense, it appears like a Ballardian view of the future; a dystopian environment catering for one’s imagination and desire to see the world and experience different cultures. There is no need to travel anywhere because the world is on one’s doorstep, even if it is a completely simulated experience. There is also Jia Zhangke’s extended metaphor of the monorail train that transports passengers around the park within fifteen minutes, literally taking them round in circles, and perhaps reflecting the emotional entanglements of Tao and Taisheng, whose relationship never seems to go anywhere. Jia Zhangke continues the trend of early Antonioni films of using environment and the juxtaposition of images in a scene to intensify the disillusionment and isolation of his protagonists.

As was the case in ‘Still Life’, Jia Zhangke temporarily abandons realism in places for thematic purposes. He uses animation techniques whenever Tao and Taisheng communicate by text message, partly a reflection no doubt on the remarkably high usage of mobile phones in China, but also to reflect the fact that the couple only ever appear to communicate in this impersonal fashion, rather than verbally, face to face. It is ironic that these young people who share a language find it so difficult to interact and communicate given that Tao and Anna begin a tentative friendship despite a severe language barrier. There’s a poignant scene when Tao meets Anna in the strip club, realising that Anna is now trapped in the world of prostitution, and both women cry in mutual sympathy at their mutual exploitation. This requires no words. Globalisation brings cultures and people together and in this sense Jia Zhangke provides a positive spin on this phenomenon, but this is perhaps the sole respite in his general ambivalence to modernisation and economic progress. With ‘The World’, Jia Zhangke has pursued similar themes as he had with his preceding films, and he would continue to do so with ‘Still Life’, which followed this film. However when the results are so remarkable and insightful, this should not be an issue.

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