Films have been used as mediums to showcase social transformation. In the Chinese film Platform made by Jia Zhang, this theme is writ large. The film reflects the changing attitudes, beliefs and cultural norms evident in late twentieth century China. It was time when the country was moving towards modernization, leaving behind some of its time-worn traditions. A small clip from the film is chosen for in-depth analysis for this essay. The clip starts at 1:28:30 and ends at1:31:20. Yet, within that short span, most of the main themes in the film could be glimpsed. Through the choice of shot angles and perspectives, behavior and actions of the actors, etc one could study the said themes. This clip is full of deft directorial touches that show how Chinese society is in transition during the last decade of the twentieth century.
Director Jia Zhang skillfully employs visual perspectives to signify social messages. His use of wide angle shots showing the imposing gorge between huge mountains has a dramatic effect of its own. The opening of the clip shows a truck full of people struggling to start-off. The truck is in the dried up gorge with the huge mountainous range in the backdrop. The railway bridge crossing through the mountains is not yet shown. Having given up the attempt to start the truck the driver and his assistant jump out the cabin. A few moments later, the driver returns to his seat and puts on a music cassette. The song that plays is a popular chartbuster called Platform, which is also the name of the film. Though the lyrics are in Chinese the style is decidedly Western, modern and hip. This is Jia Zhang’s way of showing how the Chinese society is changing culturally. Regional differences are being erased in favor of a homogenized national culture which is influenced by the West. (Strictly film school, 2000).
As the song Platform starts playing, we see how its lyrics are applicable to the situation the stranded group finds itself in. The lyrics talk about longing for love in the metaphoric language of train arrivals and departures in station platforms. The intended dry humor comes out well as the upbeat march of the song is broken by the distant whistling of a real train. But it is not love the stranded passengers are after. Instead they run toward the distant bridge with the hope of getting a piggyback ride, which could take them out of the wilderness and into safety. One could also read this situation in terms of China’s fast ascent in global economy since the 1980s. The cargo train that zips past at rapid pace is an apt metaphor for this rise in economic prowess. The stranded passengers are the citizens trying to get ahead in life and get out of the mire they find themselves in. Hence, there is rich social comment to be found in the short clip analyzed here. (College of Arts and Sciences, 2013)
The implicit directorial comment in the clip takes into account the economic, historical and cultural aspects of Chinese society. For example, the stranded passengers in the mountain gorge are mostly young people – a statistically true picture of Chinese population of the time – dominated demographically by the youth. There are men and women in equal number. Their attire is instructive of the social changes. For example, For instance, the costumes worn by members in the group are not traditional Chinese wear. Almost all of the passengers are wearing sweaters and jackets that are indiscernible from what people wear in the West. It depicts a drastic change in culture that young Chinese are now wearing English clothes – they even identify and copy the styles and attitudes that go with the costumes (China Perspectives, 2005).
Though appreciative of the modernization of China, director Jia Zhang does not romanticize the trend. This is evident in a couple of key moments in the film clip. The first is the fact that the truck breaks down. It says the methods of mechanization introduced do not always work. Rather than merely disappointing, they could actually cause distress, as the stranded passengers bear witness to. Second, in the last shot of the clip, the young people’s attempt to halt the train is unsuccessful. This is a reality check for them that economic progress alone does not guarantee a life of comfort and safety. The young people are on their own in the wilderness of the mountains and their safety and prospects of survival are not guaranteed.
In conclusion, one can read in the clip a statement of warning more broadly applicable to China’s ascent in economic terms – that economic progress and modernization are not ‘end all and be all’ for the country. The passengers’ failed attempt to gain attention by screaming and waving hands is symbolic of dangers facing modern China. Yet, there is a message of hope to be read in the shot as well. We could see in the scene the human spirit and passion in the young people. While their hopes and spirits were temporarily sapped, they remain in their positions clinging to hope that they might be rescued.
Strictly film school, Zhantai, 2000 [Platform], (2004). 6 May, 2013. Web.
College of Arts and Sciences. Platform, (2013). 6 May, 2013. Web.
China Perspectives. The World of Jia Zhangki, (2005). 6 May, 2013. Web.