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Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue: A Tribute to Rural China

November 3, 2020

Guest post by Ziqi Liu, student at New York University

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is a film that reminds me of where I come from. Born as a member of Generation Z in China, my own experience of rural living is nearly vacant, while that represents an era my parents, grandparents, and millions of Chinese people have gone through. In his new documentary, director Jia Zhangke tends to map out the changes in Chinese society by composing the stories of four generationally successive writers – Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong – in an 18-chapter symphony. Differing from his previous short and illuminating documentaries on artists such as Dong (2005) and Useless (2006), Swimming Out meanders slowly through the rural evolution in regions of China since the ‘50s as well as digs into the cultural genes carried on by the four prominent rural writers, beginning from Jia’s own home province, Shanxi.

Representing Shanxi is the most dated rural writer Ma Feng who was active since the ‘40s and witnessed the changes to the rural hinterland brought by agricultural cooperatives during the ‘50s. As he passed away in 2004, ordinary people from Jia Family Village, where many of Ma’s works were written, such as Song Shuxun and Wu Shixiong speak out as Ma’s contemporaries as well as the archetypal peasant characters in his books. During the opening 20 minutes, the 91-year-old Song Shuxun recalls how Ma Feng, as a community leader, helped to improve the infertile soil by connecting the alkaline irrigation water with the flowing river and thus drew the village out of poverty. It is torturing for the audience to sit still with Song’s heavy accent blurring the heroic story he wants to deliver, however, that seems a metaphor for the long struggle that rural China has experienced with the “yellow earth,” which continues as a culture root for the following mundane chapters: “eating,” “love,” and “marriage.”

After a quick roundup of the writers and poets at Lu Liang Literature Season who share fragments of voices and views on rural history in literary activities, the film leaves for Shaanxi province, where the next writer Jia Pingwa describes as the “blood land.” Born in 1950s, Jia recalls his dark days growing up and getting traumatized during the Cultural Revolution – his father was sent off to a forced labor camp as a counterrevolutionary, after which he returned to his hometown Shangluo where he suffered from a liver disease and wrote Turbulence in pain and confusion. The renowned novel offers a detailed and insightful account of life in a Chinese village during the tumultuous decade of post-Mao reforms, which won the Pegasus Prize in 1991.

Then comes a comic relief as we meet the talkative Yu Hua, who was born in the 1960s in Zhejiang province and best-acclaimed for his revisionist novel To Live. Sitting in a roadside wonton shop, Yu talks generously about his anecdotal stories in his youth – secretly flirting with a female librarian, taking an afternoon nap with friends in a mortuary morgue, being assigned unhappily to work as a dentist before gaining fame for his novels, and revising his manuscripts with a “bright ending” in order to get published. Shot through black humor, Yu also touches on the transitional historical moment when the Gang of Four were arrested in 1976, drawing a period to the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution. His oeuvre focusing on individualism over community and the transitional urban-rural spaces are the most realistic reflections on the changing era when the old certainties were dissolved and the country was ready to reform and open up.

The film is pushed toward an emotional climax when the 46-year-old Liang Hong, as the youngest and the only woman among the four writers, sits in a tailor’s shop in her hometown Dengzhou, Henan province and shares private stories about her family. Each of her family members occupies a chapter in the film: the paralyzed and silent mother, the inexpressive father who firmly supported his daughter’s reading, the elder sister who has never enjoyed her youth because of poverty, and the son who grows up as a metropolitan in the 21st century. After studying literature for 7 years in Beijing, Liang decided to return to her hometown in 2007 where she devoted volumes of her works to document the political and economic changes happening to her home village. It is most introspective when her 14-year-old son forgets about how to introduce himself in Henan dialect, the mother helps him connect to their roots: “It doesn’t matter. Let me teach you.”

As a documentary featuring four generations of famed Chinese writers, the intention of the director Jia Zhangke is to reflect the dramatic transformation the country has experienced through the changes in the literature sphere – from works centered on collective culture to topics of individualization, urbanization and even private storytelling. However, the film does not spill much about background information on the writings, treating the writers simply as interviewees of oral history as well as taking a sidewinding approach to the politics of their works, which brings significant difficulties and challenges to non-Chinese audiences to comprehend the hidden message.

It is though understandable that the director deliberately avoids boasting about literary achievements. He blurs personal identities of the well-known celebrities with universal mundane questions being the chapter titles in the film: “eating,” “love,” “disease,” “returning home,” etc. The discursive 18 chapters blend lengthy talking-head interviews with transitory interludes, where Jia inserts breathtaking shots of rural scenery and contrasts the modernized city views with celluloid images from his own past films, shifting the tension between straightforward biography and emotive ruminations on social change.

During the last chapters, the film follows Yu Hua to the East China Sea. Yu recalls that the sea used to be yellow when he was a teenager. He often walked along the shore at midnight, without any reason, until dawn. While in high spirits, he would jump into the sea to swim, struggling hard to reach the place where the sea turned blue – then comes the poetic title of the film: Swimming out till the sea turns blue. Jia says he could strongly resonate with Yu’s story of swimming, as he feels a responsibility to position our generation in history and push the changes of the current social environment.

There is a “yellow sea” that all Chinese filmmakers are struggling to “swim out”– the strict film censorship by the government. As a leading figure of the “Sixth Generation” directors in China, Jia Zhangke spares no effort to inspire movements in Chinese cinema. However, recently Jia announced his quit of the Pingyao International Film Festival that he co-founded four years ago, handing over the festival to the Pingyao government, which sparked concerns over the future of the young festival as well as the tough filmmaking environment in the country.

The sea has not yet turned blue, while we will keep swimming.

Ziqi is currently a master student at NYU Cinema Studies. She was born in Shandong, China and received her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Nanjing University. Find her via Instagram @ziqiliu0711.

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