Jia Zhangke returns to documentary filmmaking with a look at the changing cultural landscape of hos home Shanxi province. He frames it through a look at the legacy of writer Ma Feng through the observations of fellow writers Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong as well as the people who have loved through the last 80 years in Shanxi.
I am very mixed on Swimming… part of the problem is that I simply don’t have a good enough grasp of history and Chinese literature in order to feel I am fully understanding what I was seeing. There is a lot of reference to things that are simply out of my realm of experience. While I would normally complain that a filmmaker didn’t explain enough for all audiences, this film was not only never really intended for me (I’ve seen enough Zhangke films to know this is frequently an issue), but it is also part of a trilogy of films on the arts in China. I should have brought myself up to speed, so that is wholly on me
At the same time I’m also all over the place about the presentation. Zhangke has made a film of 18 chapters which don’t always flow together. They do fit together, especially when you look back at them in retrospect, but the connections are bumpy. Some pieces are a brilliant tidbits (Ma Feng’s daughter talking about his life is very cool, as is the then and now) but other pieces seem to be less so. I never felt full engaged since the shifting gears jolted me.
To be honest I intellectually get what the film is doing but emotionally I remain distant. For someone who admires Zhangke’s films because they always produce an emotional reaction watching Swimming and not feeling anything was concerning. It’s also disappointing.
Worth a look for Zhangke fans, all others unfamiliar with the director or the subject its optional.