Little Gain and Plenty of Pain

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Review of 'Unknown Pleasures', director Jia Zhang-Ke

In 1978 Deng Xiaoping introduced free market reforms in China. The increasingly bureaucratised economy had stagnated under Mao, but in the 1980s its average annual growth rate was 10 percent. China now has the world's third largest economy. Yet the vast majority of Chinese people have benefited little from these reforms.

Unknown Pleasures centres on two unemployed 19 year olds from Datong, Shanxi province. Datong's state-run factories are bankrupt, and their parents are also unemployed. Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) roams the city on his motorbike, while Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) lusts after one of the dancers on a promotion team for Mongolian King Liquor. That her boyfriend - the only wealthy character in the film - is a violent thug doesn't seem to bother him. This is a sleepy provincial town and injustices thrown up by the trudge of life seem to be accepted by all.

At the heart of the film lies the contrast between life in Datong and the unreachable riches of the modern world. When Xiao Ji's father finds a one dollar bill, everybody is excited by how rich he will be. But the bank doesn't let him exchange it. Television news reports frequently interrupt the film to remind the characters that this is a globalised 2001, that they are in the third millennium. Beijing is hosting the 2008 Olympics, the news reader tells us enthusiastically. They don't care.

There seems to be no escape from the baking sun, dusty streets and stifling poverty that frames their existence. But this is a generation well versed in American crime dramas, with a future dictated purely by financial gain. Pushed to breaking point, we see a sudden, almost surreal, exclamation of defiance; it results, of course, in failure. The slow build-up of despair reaches a frenzy and our heroes' hopelessly absurd response almost seems like the logical thing to do. This is their 'unknown pleasure': according to director Zhang-Ke, 'In desperation, violence can be their ultimate expression of romance.'

The film closes with Xiao Ji driving down the newly opened highway to Beijing, in pouring rain. It leaves us in no doubt that this is about as likely to result in a better life as the street-corner lottery announcements over loudspeakers which opened the film. After all, Datong was always in the modern world: it was the opportunities that were unreal.

Perhaps most striking about Unknown Pleasures is its similarities with western films about impoverished youth. The social exclusion of Zhang-Ke's China reminded me very much of Kassovitz's Paris, in his masterpiece La Haine, and the feeling of violence borne out of hopelessness was reminiscent of Larry Clark's Kids. While capitalism around the world can differ in form, it seems that it always has the same content: dejection, hopelessness, alienation, and tauntingly unreachable glimpses of wealth. Here is a reminder that China is no different.