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With: Zhao Tao, Zhao Wei Wei, Wu Qiong
Written by: Jia Zhang-ke
Directed by: Jia Zhang-ke
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 113
Date: 05/23/2002

Unknown Pleasures (2003)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Welcome to the 'Pleasures' dome

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The three main characters in Unknown Pleasures try their best to fill the long hours of the day, but even the effort of doing that much has become unrelentingly wearisome. And yet, despite the distinct lack of good times and belly laughs, Unknown Pleasures is a great film.

This is the third film by the 32 year-old Chinese arthouse favorite Jia Zhang-ke and the first to find commercial distribution in the United States. His first two, Xiao Wu (1997) and Platform (2000), played at the SF International Film Festival. Jia references himself by bringing back the character Xiao Wu (Hong Wei Wang) for a small role selling bootleg DVDs of Jia's first two films.

In the new film, two unemployed boys in their late teens, Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong), hang around the grim city of Datong, China. They spend a good deal of time at a kind of dilapidated community center where other bored young men shoot pool, smoke, and hang out. The center's one colorful character is a tank-topped man who belts out opera tunes till his voice cracks.

Xiao Ji, with his stringy, face-length hair, becomes interested in a young actress Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), who has landed the part as a spokesmodel for Mongolian King liquor; she's also the girlfriend for a gangster-wannabe who works for the company.

The scrawny Bin Bin, who rides a scooter everywhere, has even less to do; his girlfriend is a rigid student who never takes her mind from her studies or her future. Even when they watch cartoons ("The Monkey King") together, she sits straight with her hands in her lap. Living with his mother and unable to help her with the household expenses, Bin Bin attempts to join the army but discovers he has hepatitis.

And though it seems as if nothing really happens in Unknown Pleasures -- the scenes drag with a stagnant stillness that reminds us of a grungier Bresson or Hou Hsiao-hsien -- Jia constantly bombards us with matching bookends, ideas and images that come together to tell us exactly how lost these people are.

American consumerism appears everywhere. After Bin Bin sits down at his kitchen table to enjoy a Coke, he leaps up when he hears an explosion outside. "Are the Americans bombing?" he asks. Meanwhile, the TV plays a news item about the April, 2001 downed American plane behind Chinese lines.

Meanwhile, Xiao Ji is obsessed with Pulp Fiction and, in an attempt to impress Qiao Qiao, describes that movie's opening restaurant scene to her. (Coincidentally, she wears an Uma Thurman wig.) And Xiao Ji's father wins an American dollar in a bottle of malt liquor and has no idea how much it's worth; though he thinks it's worth a lot. He carries it with him and shows it off in a vain attempt to buy some kind of happiness.

Jia delivers this level of Americanism with great subtlety, and no American viewers have yet complained they way they complained about Godard's In Praise of Love last year. Instead, we begin to understand how our rampant consumerism and commercialism can instill want into a society that can't afford it.

Which leads us to Jia's extraordinarily brilliant conclusion, a failed bank robbery. As a result, the characters wind up not much different from where they started off. But which is worse: that they are doomed to forever occupy this low place, or that we make them so painfully aware of it?

DVD Details: I saw Unknown Pleasures twice in the theater, and was impressed by how beautifully the digital video translated to film. The textures were very nearly film-like and it was difficult to tell the difference. On DVD, some scenes come across as more video-like in texture, depending upon the lighting. In truth, I can't tell if New Yorker used the film negative to make the DVD, or the original video source. Other than that, the disc comes with the theatrical trailer (definitely presented from its video source), optional subtitles and trailers for four other New Yorker releases, Trembling Before G-d, Life and Debt, Kandahar, and Late Marriage. Plus, yours truly has a quote on the front box cover.

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