Life in the Shanxi Province of China is the foundation of writer-director Jia Zhangke’s astonishing twenty-five-year career. Whether a decade-spanning love triangle expressed in triptych narrative form, a plunge into the violent underworld of gang leaders, or the existential despair of a pickpocket, Zhangke’s Shanxi stories run the gamut of genre. His latest, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, is a longingly titled testament of devotion to that diversity of style and the subject of his home province, but it also marks a rare misstep in his boundless filmography.
The lion’s share of Zhangke’s work is fiction, but, as a filmmaker pledged to the spreading and pictorializing of modern Chinese history, he’s no stranger to the world of nonfiction. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is his third feature-length documentary that centers on creatives primarily from the northeastern province. Where 2006’s Dong and 2007’s Useless respectively examined a renowned artist and fashion designer, Swimming zooms in on the lives of four writers who broke out of regional fame and into the national, and even international, spotlight: Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong.
Zhangke doesn’t seem as focused on their literary careers — used more as narrative reference for the writers to tell their stories and explain their convictions — so much as he does on the social, cultural, political, agricultural, and economic development of Chinese society over the past eighty years and how it has shaped the writers. All but for Ma Feng, whose death in 2004 means his story is told through the memory of those who knew him. The most dated writer of the four, Feng is also the generational launching pad into the lives of the other three, all of whom are roughly a decade younger than the writer who is interviewed before them.
Choosing four generationally successive writers is a savvy way to give an audience uneducated about Chinese literary tycoons a better glimpse of the full picture. Not to mention, it offers differing perspectives on similar ideas across the gradual evolution of time and thought in the region. But this is also the kind of detail one might miss after drifting in and out of transient daydreams during the series of long, static interviews, which comprise the majority of the film’s protracted runtime and are prone to unedited tangents.
Compare the one-hundred-and-eleven minutes of Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue to the respective sixty-six-minute and eighty-minute runtimes of Dong and Useless. It’s easy to imagine how fixed shots on talking heads, regardless of how engaging the topics they’re discussing have been in past Zhangke projects, can feel like a slog, and perhaps, a structural fumble for the auteur. The lengths of the three documentaries’ titles make the same point. What typically begins as a fresh autobiographical account in each interview eventually wades in a meandering nostalgia reminiscent of getting stuck in a one-sided conversation with no polite way out.
If Tsai Ming-liang’s Days sits on one end of the 2020 New York Film Festival spectrum, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue sits on the other, with soothing silence and meditation traded for the busy, ever-present sound of voices. There are plenty of exceptions to the flatness, such as Liang Hong’s moving chronicle of mother, father, sister, and son in the film’s final moments. In fact, no one story is the issue. Every interview has its fair share of satisfying and bone-dry moments.
Zhangke is as responsible for the cunning intergenerational storytelling technique as he is for the lack of brevity, and as he is for failing to use the medium he has such compelling mastery over to grab our attention and draw emotion out of the various narratives. However, he does with themes — e.g. revolution, unity, desolation, disease — and accompanying B-roll what he doesn’t do with the interviews.
The film is broken up into eighteen chapters. Some of them last a transitory minute while others are long enough to make you wonder if you missed the new chapter’s title card. It’s in those transitory and orchestrally scored chapters that Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue shines. Chapters like “Sound,” “Harvest,” and “Swimming” are so gorgeously shot and thematically effective they make the term “B-roll” sound offensive. One can only hear so much about the local history of said topics without pining after some accompanying photography — especially when longtime Zhangke cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai is at the helm of the camera.
In “Harvest,” for example, we glide over a golden field of wheat complemented by burgeoning bright green vegetation at its far end while workers slash the crop. It’s quick and simple, but the imagery in concert with the score communicates as much about the prosperity of agriculture pioneered by Ma Feng and the Jia Family Village’s irrigation of water in the ’40s and ’50s than the first ten minutes of interviews. Likewise, the brief “Swimming” chapter bathes the audience in breathtaking, oceanic blues and greens that achieve an incredible emotional effect with only a few lines of poetry spoken over the shots.
Ideally, the imagery and interviews would be blended, the motion, music, and color of the former expressively welding us to the human heart of the latter. Instead, it feels stuck, unbalanced, lost in history instead of illuminating it. Zhangke’s regular lead (and wife) Zhao Tao produced Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, but the extraordinary duo simply can’t match the brilliance of their past collaborations, whether fiction or nonfiction. In their defense, that is a ridiculously high bar. In ours, they put it there.