The title, certainly, is a misnomer. There’s not really any pleasure being had in this movie, unknown or otherwise.
The story, to the degree that there is one, focuses on two young friends, Bin Bin (Wei Wei Zhao) and Xiao Ji (Qiong Wu), and the woman Xiao Ji has a crush on, Qiao Qiao (Tao Zhao). Bin Bin has a girlfriend, but her presence barely registers. Even Bin Bin seems little more than indifferent to her.
The central trio lives in a blighted urban environment dominated by a textile mill. There’s not much work, though, and they drift through their days aimlessly: unemployed, broke, with little reason to go on. As the film opens, Bin Bin, who lives with his exasperated mother, has just quit his job in a grocery store because, he says, he didn’t like his boss’s face. Xiao Ji lives with his father and helps him make bombs (a subplot that’s made to seem significant and then completely forgotten). Qiao Qiao is something of a minor local celebrity, dancing (in a manner that makes Britney Spears look like Twyla Tharp) for small audiences and endorsing Mongolian King Liquor. Her popularity, though, doesn’t translate into steady work or prompt payment. To add some stability to her life, she’s involved in a relationship with Qiao San, a minor criminal. It’s implied that she also prostitutes herself for extra cash.
The pacing is glacial. The plot meanders as aimlessly as the characters, with the trio getting in and out of minor scrapes, brushing themselves off, and moving on to the next one. There’s no sense of hope, so there are no real consequences to their actions. If things can’t get any better, neither can they get worse.
Unknown Pleasures refers to a work by the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. In it, Qiao Qiao explains, he advocated giving oneself over to pleasure. She seems to want to adopt that approach to life, though she finds herself unable. None of the characters really take pleasure in anything. There is nothing of beauty or joy in their lives. They drink without mirth, smoke cigarettes as if it were a duty, and never seem to have sex.
Everyone talks a good deal about the United States, speaking of it the way a child might describe an abusive parent. Though they fear American military might, they admire our popular culture and prosperity. The most excited anyone gets is when Xiao Ji’s father finds a single dollar bill. They speculate about its worth, guessing wildly that they might be able to take it to the bank and exchange it for 10,000 Yuan (a dollar is currently worth closer to eight Yuan, an indicator of just how exaggerated their views of US economic superiority are). Xiao Ji talks about the film Pulp Fiction, getting the details wrong but exalting in the idea of the American outlaw, free to do as he pleases and take what he needs with no remorse. His obsession with the film leads to a very half-assed attempt at crime, whose consequences would seem tragic if the characters could believe they had anything to lose.
The film has no musical score. The little music there is consists of a few Chinese pop songs (one of which, an anthem about self-determination and opportunity, is used as a leitmotif to provide an ironic contrast to the lives of the characters) and songs (whose lyrics are not subtitled, so I have no idea what they’re about) sung by a man who stands around in a few scenes bellowing them out at the top of his lungs, with no explanation offered.
Writer/director ZhangKe Jia was clearly working with many limitations. Every scene is shot with only one camera, usually in a single, long take. One scene of two characters talking is shot like a tennis match, jerking back and forth with each line of dialogue. Still, some scenes, particularly when the characters move outside the blighted city, are beautifully composed. ZhangKe has some good instincts, but he’s not a natural storyteller.
Unknown Pleasures seems to have gotten a largely positive response upon its initial release, and I have an idea why. It’s the kind of movie critics want to like. It has a documentary feel, and I have no trouble believing that there’s a great deal of truth to the depiction of these lives. The locations are clearly genuine, and the despair they induce must also be. Aimless lives don’t usually lend themselves to classically structured story arcs, so even the lack of plot isn’t a fair consideration. The real problem, though, is that in the end the viewer hasn’t really learned anything beyond the basic facts of the characters’ existence. Their inner lives remain as opaque as their affectless expressions.
Apparently, “Special Features” doesn’t translate into Mandarin. You get the theatrical trailer; that’s it (though the box also lists “Scene Selections” as a special feature, as though that weren’t standard on any DVD).
In fairness, I’d imagine it could be quite difficult to arrange a director’s commentary or assemble a featurette for the American DVD release of a Chinese movie, and the distributor certainly wouldn’t find it economically sound. Still, an interview with the director, even if it were just text or audio, could have been illuminating.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()