All the world’s a stage and we are merely Party members.
The movie starts with a short scene of a group of workingmen gathered around, waiting for the play to start. As they wait, they laugh about things breaking down. I guess that laughing is preferable to getting angry.
It is time for the Peasant Cultural Brigade of Fenyang district to perform A Train Is Going to Shaoshan. Even by the title, it is obvious that this is going to be some Mao-worshipping propaganda. But then the play starts and ooo boy, is it ever. Thankfully, the film cuts to the next scene before they are even done with the firsts verse of the first song.
The play is over and the Peasant Cultural Brigade of Fenyang district is back on the bus. The troupe’s leader, Xu, does a roll call. There are maybe seventeen names, but we will end up needing only to focus on a few. For example, there is Cui Mingliang, who is late to get on the bus due to being in the bathroom. Apparently, Mingliang has a bad reputation among the group and Xu does not like him. When he finally does arrive, Xu scolds him for lacking discipline and a collective feeling. Also, his imitation of train noise was terrible. Mingliang does not appreciate such criticism. Anyways, he has never taken the train. Xu calls that an unacceptable excuse, but whatever. Mingliang sits down and Xu tells the bus driver to drive to their next destination. In the darkness, the troupe starts imitating a train. They sound like they are having fun.
Mingliang hangs around the house while his mother mends some trousers. She tells him to be useful as opposed to just waiting around for her to finish. He retorts that he is an artist and his younger brother should do the labor instead. His mother has heard this nonsense before.
Finally, Mingliang’s mother is done with the trousers. She goes to the next room, where Mingliang and his troupe colleagues Zhou Jun and Yu Eryong are waiting. As Mingliang and Zhou Jun try on the trousers, Mingliang’s mother asks Zhou Jun about his bell-bottom trousers. He says that his aunt got them for him in Canton. He tells Mingliang’s mother that it is the latest fad in the cities. Bell-bottoms? What year is this? Mingliang’s mother is skeptical, saying that they will both get in trouble.
Mingliang’s father arrives and Mingliang helps him getting stuff off of the truck. His father notices the bell bottoms and is not very impressed. Can a laborer work while wearing such trousers? Mingliang says once again that he works in the arts. His father calls this capitalist behavior. Mingliang argues that this is a generation gap issue and walks off.
Mingliang, Yu Eryong, and Zhou Jun go to meet their troupe colleagues Yin Ruijuan and Zhong Ping outside a movie theater. The two are not that impressed by the bell bottoms either, but whatever. They go get tickets for an Indian movie. They manage to get in, but are called to the entrance. Ruijuan’s father found out that she and her friends were watching some indulgent foreign flick and disapproves. If only it were some film from the Stalin-era USSR…but no. Mingliang, who had not left the screening when told to, walks past, saying that he is going to write something, and Ruijuan takes this as an excuse to leave. Her father…cannot actually do anything about that, can he?
Mingliang climbs up a wall and stands up top, perhaps trying to see what all that commotion is about. I am not sure that he is able to.
The commotion can also be heard from Ruijuan’s house. She is not exactly paying attention as her father tells her that Mingliang wearing glasses does not make that hooligan a writer.
Despite her father’s lecture, Ruijuan meets Mingliang atop the wall. She suggests that they go back down where her father cannot see them. So, they go down an…unfinished stairway to the ground level. Ruijuan asks him about Zhong Ping, and whether Zhang Jun’s family knows about her. Mingliang says that Zhong Ping’s family likes Zhang Jun and he even had dinner with them last night. Perhaps sensing where this conversation is heading, Mingliang claims that Ruijuan’s father exaggerates; that he thinks that he’s in the KGB. Okay, who is exaggerating? Ruijuan tells Mingliang not to say stuff like that. He just has worried about her ever since her mother died. Mingliang says that she lives under martial law. Ruijuan asks him to stop. After a pause, she tells him that her aunt has arranged for her to meet someone; a dentist and a proletarian university student. For a fiancé? Mingliang sarcastically says that it must be nice for Ruijuan to have everything arranged for her.
Mingliang, Zhang Jun, and Eryong are…just hanging out in a room somewhere. Mingliang has tuned the radio to a station…from Taiwan? Or at least a station playing Taiwanese music. Teresa Teng. Eryong starts asking…odd questions. Where is Ulan Bator? In Outer Mongolia, says Zhang Jun. Where’s Mongolia. North, after our Mongolia. What’s further north? The revisionists (HAHAHAH!). And north of the revisionists? The sea. And north of the sea? You and your shitty questions. Further north is here in Fenyang, says Mingliang. At Zhang Jun’s. Have they been smoking weed?
Mingliang’s brother seems to have gotten into a fight and their father is unhappy. Nor is he happy about the little booklet that he found that, under the guise of anti-capitalist propaganda, is more likely an erotic tale. Mingliang’s brother storms out of meal time. After a few seconds, Mingliang tries to follow. His father tells him to let his brother go. Whether Mingliang does is unclear.
Anyways, Mingliang is moping around at a barbershop. Eryong and Zhang Jun assume that it is due to Ruijuan being set up with that dentist. Eryong says that they could…shove his teeth down his throat. He would not be able to fix his own mouth. Somehow, neither of the other two react to this. In any case, Zhong Ping arrives and tells Mingliang to come watch TV with…her. Why not just say Ruijuan? Who knows? Mingliang says that he needs to get a haircut. Zhong Ping is having none of that, and calls for Ruijuan. And here she is. Anyways, Ruijuan and Zhong Ping are going to watch the war film Daredevil Garrison. Zhong Ping has to pretty much force the boys into coming with them, especially Mingliang.
Oh, look at that. The guys are enjoying the movie too.
Well, I don’t know if Mingliang ever got that haircut, but Zhang Jun is hanging out with a girl who has gotten a perm…or permanent. Zhong Ping notices and kind of gives him crap for chasing girls. She calls such behavior improper. Paraphrasing Pushkin, Zhang Jun claims that to love someone is to love everything about his, including his past. What? That past was like a minute ago. This was in the same long take. The camera had to even follow him from one girl to the other.
Also unhappy with Zhang Jun is the leader Xu. Apparently, on the truck ride to wherever they are now, Xu heard the troupe sing a communist song with the lyrics altered to be about having eight wives and ten kids. Hearing Zhang Jun’s unmelodious voice the loudest, Xu accuses Zhang Jun in leading the group down a bad path. Mingliang stands up and takes blame for the incident. I don’t know why Xu orders Zhang Jun and then Mingliang to sing the lyrics in front of the group, and THEN to criticize the concept of polygamy, since all this does is make everyone else burst into laughter.
Oh, speaking of having ten kids, Zhang Jun and Zhong Ping go to get a perm and they sort of cross paths with a group of people extolling the…acceptability…of birth control and having only one child. I am not sure if this is the start of the One Child Policy in 1980 or if they are just part of the lead up to it, but that sort of shows the time the movie is in now.
Xu is talking to the troupe about the debate from above over whether they should incorporate “light music” into their repertoire when Zhong Ping arrives. Late. And with a permanent. Everyone stares at her. Zhang Jun had assured her that this would make her beautiful, but she does not seem to be very comfortable with it. The others start to giggle and Xu even makes fun of her, saying that she looks like a Spanish girl. That gets the rest of the group (save Zhang Jun) laughing. Xu jokes that she should do a flamenco number.
Or maybe he wasn’t joking.
As this truck drives around in what seems to be a circle (or just makes a U-turn, whatever), the loudspeaker announces the rehabilitation of Liu Shiaoqi, Mao’s would-be successor who had, instead, been branded a traitor in 1967 and ultimately killed in 1969, less than two weeks before his 71st birthday. I guess that this establishes the current time as February of 1980, when leader Deng Xiaoping declared Liu’s ouster from power and the accusations against him unjust. Mao was not blamed. Conveniently, the scapegoat for these false accusations was another politician named Lin Biao, who had died in 1971. In fact, this rehabilitation was said to be a reestablishment of the principles of Mao Zedong Thought as opposed to, say, Deng restoring his dead buddy’s good name. And since Mao is also dead, he could not say anything or do anything to contradict this.
One person who was not rehabilitated is White Pig. Who is White Pig? Well, Zhong Ping and Ruijuan know who he is. Ruijuan goes to tell Zhong Ping that he was in the march of the condemned. It is not the first time that he had gotten in trouble, but he is to be put to death this time. Zhong Ping is sad for his mother. Ruijuan is…not too concerned. So, they talk about other things. Knitting, Zhong Ping’s fledgling smoking habit, some guy named Lai who may have a crush on one of them, Zhang Jun’s…wandering eye, drawn-on eyebrows, etc.
Ruijuan is walking on the wall and Mingliang bikes past her. Okay. Ruijuan leans against the wall on…the wall as Mingliang gets off his bike and walks to her. And then, Ruijuan…goes to stand on a part of the wall that we cannot see. Okay. Mingliang asks what Ruijuan talked about with Zhong Ping. She says that they just chatted. That seems true enough. Mingliang asks if they talked about him. She says yes, nice things. I don’t remember that, but it is good enough for Mingliang, who walks over to her. And…um…
Anyways, as they occasionally walk in and out of view, Ruijuan says that she thinks Zhong Ping is odd. Mingliang says that she is just missing Zhang Jun, who has left for Canton. Ruijuan doesn’t think that it is that, but she does not elaborate. Mingliang tells her that he had been asked yesterday if she was his fiancée. So…is she? Ruijuan doesn’t know. So, Mingliang goes back on his bike and Ruijuan walks behind him.
Oh, hey. Zhang Jun has returned. And he is blasting some Taiwanese music out of a newfangled cassette player. This time, it is Zhang Di, whom he says is more famous than Teresa Teng. If he says so. Teresa Teng has a Wikipedia page and Zhang Di just has articles talking about how he married his daughter’s best friend nine years after this movie came out. ANYWAYS, Mingliang asks him to reveal more about the outside world. Zhang Jun starts, but then is interrupted by others who come up to welcome him back. Notably, Zhong Ping is slow to go up to him, and only after Ruijuan calls for her. But she will later join in the late-night festivities of dancing this most-likely not Party-approved party music about…Genghis Khan.
And, look at that; the troupe is doing labor in the form of fixing up some walls. I am sure that Mingliang is happy about doing this, especially after cutting his hand. Also, Zhong Ping comes along to tell him that Ruijuan says that he is insane. Wait, didn’t Ruijuan say something similar about her a few scenes ago? What is going on here? In any case, Zhong Ping claims that he had upset Ruijuan and should talk to her. I guess that the two have not been talking?
Well, here they are. Ruijuan admits that she had never considered Mingliang for marriage, so his question the other day had shocked her. She says that she does not consider them a good match, and not just because her father has reservations about Mingliang’s family. She says that they can still go out together and be friends. Best friends. Mingliang doesn’t argue, even saying that she is right, but that she has said this too late. Then he walks off. And Ruijuan wanders over to the spot where she had first told him about the dentist all those months ago. Months? Years?
At home, Mingliang’s mother is furious at his father for buying something for someone else’s wife and not anything for his own sons. In front of both young men, she pretty much accuses him of adultery. Mingliang attempts to stand up for him, but his father tells him to stay out of it. Now, this gets Mingliang upset. He is 24, not a kid. His father yells at him for talking back, so Mingliang talks back again: so what? Neither parent can really do anything about that. So…there is just an awkward silence.
Mingliang is singing (badly) some love song while playing his guitar in front of a group of guys while they wait on the wall for someone to pass under. Oh, here he comes. It’s a bus carrying prisoners, I suppose. They throw rocks at the bus. They don’t hit the guy inside, but they do hit the bus as it passes underneath. They really showed him. Then Mingliang walks off and throws a rock seemingly randomly in the opposite direction.
Zhong Ping and Zhang Jun are at a…hospital…? They don’t outright say why they are there, but it is heavily implied that this is in regards to Zhong Ping getting an abortion…ahem…She says that they should consult their parents, but Zhang Jun is scared of his parents knowing.
That seems unsafe.
In lieu of their parents, Zhong Ping and Zhang Jun have gotten Xu to accompany them. I guess that he knows the doctor? Also, Mingliang is there. So, when the doctor takes Zhong Ping and Zhang Jun away, it is just Mingliang and Xu. Mingliang asks Xu about what privatization is. I guess that that was one of the words said during those loudspeaker announcements regarding Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Xu explains that that is when someone buys something that is public. Thus, it becomes private. As Zhang Jun returns, Mingliang asks if that means that he would own Xu if he invests in the troupe. Why? Is Mingliang planning on doing that? Xu says that there are colleagues who are interested. Mingliang may regret it if he misses out.
The doctor comes back; Zhong Ping won’t do it. What?? The three go over to see her. She tells Zhang Jun that she is scared, but he yells at her that she will shame the both of them. Zhong Ping finally goes into the doctor’s room, but not before slapping him and telling him to go to hell. As the others wait in the hallway, the radio announces a parade for Deng Xiaoping in honor of the People’s Republic of China’s 35 anniversary. Ah, so this must be October of 1984. My how time has passed.
The troupe meets to settle the privatization issue. Xu claims that the initial investment is not very high compared with those for other troupes. Xu starts badgering individual members who had bothered him before, but who are now silent. One man says that Xu seems like he is anxious to be rid of them, like he is selling them off. Xu counters that he is selling himself, not them. Finally, a member named Song Yongping stands up and offers to invest. Well, that was easy, right? The troupe has a new leader, but everything else will carry on as normal, right?
This is not simply the second movie that I have talked about by Jia Zhangke, it is also the second full-length movie that he made. It could have also been the third, given its runtime. Apparently, the original cut was 193 minutes long or something. But, for whatever reason, it got trimmed by around 25%, leaving it with its current runtime, which is about as long as other sophomore projects like Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights. I gather that Jia does prefer this shortened version, but I would still like to see the deleted content. The DVD that I was able to get has an essay that refers to some of the content, but not the content itself. Perhaps a Criterion Blu-ray might have it? Hmmm? Is that still in the works? Either way, this remains Jia’s longest film to date. Long or not, this film is the one that I liked the most out of his early stuff. The others are…okay, but this one has a little bit of a hypnotic quality that I would not feel until Still Life in 2006.
This movie is also the first movie that Zhao Tao has acted in, at all. She would become a frequent collaborator with Jia, and they would get married in 2012. Wang Hongwei, who played Cui Mingliang, had been in his previous movie as well as his short film in 1995, and would also star in several other Jia films. Many have considered his characters to be Jia’s on screen alter-ego, not the least because the films tend to focus on him. Yet, starting with Platform, Jia carved out space for a different character in the roles that Zhao would play, and would have expanded roles for her in subsequent films while cutting down on Wang’s significantly. Hmmm…
There is a sort of Chinese indie minimalist style that Jia employs. The movie is full of long takes as well as scenes so short that I couldn’t even include them. And nothing fancy either. The camera may occasionally turn to keep looking at the characters or even just slightly waiver, but it rarely moves from its spot. It just cuts to a different location. Scenes can have maybe four cuts or no cuts at all. And the angles are rarely to the benefit of the characters. They may be front and center of the frame, but they are just as likely to be too far away to make out facial expressions as close enough. It is almost like splices of surveillance camera footage. And if the characters round the bend to a place out of the camera’s view and there is no camera on the other side, then we just don’t see them. The camera in his first feature, Xiao Wu, may have followed them around that corner. Not here. That is the only piece of privacy that they have. And then it is back to surveillance. There is curiosity, but not necessarily any attempt at emotional connection. At least not through the visuals.
Still, characters cannot go far from the cameras. They go where the camera is. The camera is wherever. And it tends to stay put until it doesn’t. Aside from one instance where the camera is set on the back of the troupe’s transport vehicle, there are few times when the camera is forced to follow a character, and those are the rare times when those characters are briefly able to break free from constrictions and act as they want. Either that or those are the scenes where the camera makes the call to follow the characters, making a judgment on them and their behavior. I theorized that the long takes in Ride or Die signified the characters trying to savor these precious moments before they disappear. In Platform, the characters are trapped in time and barely even able to consider any space beyond what is provided to them. One day bleeds into the next until ten years have passed. As history marches, they go along or get left behind. The title, which is indeed Platform in Chinese, may imply the place where people can make speeches, or it is more likely a reference to a song about waiting on a train platform. Will the Train to Shaoshan really let them on? Probably not, since they are not on a station. Is the train even going to Shaoshan? Is it even a passenger train?
This ambivalence to China’s historical process is a theme in many of Jia’s films, including A Touch of Sin. The movie does not so much follow these characters through a decade of their lives as it does drop in every so often to see how history has been treating them. The primary characters in this movie seem to be in their early twenties or so at the start of the movie, set at the end of the 1970s. Perhaps they had been at the right age to become swept up in Red Guard fever just before it fell apart in 1968. That could be the reason for the less-than total obedience of children to their parents. By no means is Mingliang a James Dean rebel, but he is considered a bit of a bad egg. But what can people do about him? As long as he contributes to the revolution through the Cultural Brigade, he is protected by the Party. So, he can talk back to his parents and the most that they can do is complain about him talking back. Ruijuan feels obligated to obey her father because her mother died and he is not in his best health, but he has no tangible authority over her beyond her conscience. At one point, Zhong Ping runs away, and Mingliang asks her father where she is, but he has no idea and does not even bother to find out. Leader Xu is the first among equals, but barely. It is the greater society that the characters answer to, not their families and not their immediate bosses.
About 300 miles south west of Beijing, the city of Fenyang is known for…uh…being Jia’s hometown and the place where some of his movies are set. And that seems to be it. If anything of importance happened there before 1997, neither Google nor Wikipedia seems to know. One might infer that Fenyang has felt the effects of China’s history, but has not affected it in ways that are notable enough to note. I don’t know if it is fair to call Fenyang some nowheresville city where nothing happens, but that is kind of what it seems. It lacks the beauty of the sweeping countryside, just a bunch of unimpressive buildings, constant construction projects, and incomplete structures. This stairway never gets completed.
And what the heck is this?
They are like metaphors for…the gaps…between…the people and…they are like metaphors.
The characters have no control over the progress of the country, so they either absorb the changes through osmosis, ignore the changes until they become normalized, or struggle to adapt. Some things, like the rehabilitation of Liu Shaoqi, have little impact on their lives. The privatization of the Cultural Brigade does, though its effects become apparent only over time.
The movie may seem to depict China’s modernization in a rather negative light, but its take on Chinese communism itself is also ambivalent. The movie starts in…1979? Mao has been dead for around three years and all that is left is nostalgic valorizing, like the play that the Cultural Brigade performs for an audience who is used to everything breaking down.
The characters may believe in the Communist Party on a kneejerk level, but do they really understand it? Do they really feel it? Probably not much more than the audiences that had to attend. Cui Mingliang believes that his role as an artist means that the Party will take care of him. But he cannot properly imitate a train, having never ridden a train. Can the other members of the troupe imitate a train? As their bus drives through the darkness, they start howling like a train whistle, and chug chug chugging. As if they are the train going to Shaoshan, Mao’s hometown. But they are not a train. And they are not going to Shaoshan. They travel around and around to nowhere and then return to Fenyang.
There is a joy to the performance of the train. It is the same joy that the characters exhibit when performing the rest of the play, the words of reverent worship for Mao. It is comfort and confidence in the memory of Mao and faith in the Party. But it is performative. The characters can find just as much joy laughing along to more vulgar lyrics to a communist song than signing the song itself. Maybe even more. I don’t think that Zhong Ping looks happier than when she is pretending to be a Spanish dancer. There is more comfort in performing devotion to the Party than true understanding. Mingliang can recite Deng Xiaoping’s words to Xu in order to prove that he is not simply a hooligan, but don’t ask him to explain what he said. He is just reciting lines. Mingliang’s role as an artist for the Party is his protection. As long as he is doing that, the Party will make sure that he is taken care of, and he can escape the labor that the rest of his family is expected to do…theoretically. But when he comes across a concept that he does not understand and may affect him directly, he goes right to Xu to teach him. It is implied that Xu had been part of the group of smarty-pants who were forcibly sent to the countryside to better appreciate the plight of the common man. This is the man teaching them communism.
Do the characters engage in political activity when not on the stage? Not unless you count throwing rocks at that bus. More often, they just hang around doing nothing, wearing bellbottoms, watching movies from India, and listen to music from the renegade province of Taiwan. We see them only mildly brush up against the One-Child Policy without engaging with it. They seem to have no consciousness of the changes that are really going on. So, no, they would have no opinions about some crackdown in Beijing that they would not hear about anyways.
Mingliang gets treated like a troublemaker, but it is Zhang Jun who engages in risky behavior with his wandering eye. Even his relationship with Zhong Ping could cause problems. Some of it the Party will condone in the age of reform, and even encourage. Some of it the Party will not. Some of it the Party will simply be ignored. And the Party can always change its mind while pretending that it didn’t. The characters will just have to work out what is what for themselves, as the Party will be of little help. Until then, it will just be and endless wait on an interminable railway platform.
WTF ASIA 220: Alive (South Korea: 2014, approx. 166 minutes)
WTF ASIA 221: Om Shanti Om (India: 2007, approx. 167-169 minutes)