WITH HIS LATEST film, The World (see review), opening this week, Jia Zhang-ke has been elevated to perhaps the favorite Chinese director among U.S. critics. That reputation rests primarily on his 2000 Platform, which reached DVD on Aug. 16. It's a history film about the recent past: the '80s, more or less bounded by the death of Mao and the Tiananmen Square clampdown. None of this is seen however—Jia's historical markers are pop songs and haircuts. He essentially follows four performers in a traveling rural state-sponsored "cultural team" that later gets privatized. They fall in love, quarrel, have abortions, separate, and reconcile, but their personalities matter less than the forces of politics and the market—which finally turn out to be the same thing. They're figures in an economic landscape beyond their control.
Not that Platform is pedantic or political. It's lovely, infused with "a beautiful sadness"—as Jia calls it in an interview on the disc—about the passage of time and the uncertainty of the future. What one character describes as "the big, wide world" means the richer coastal towns of the south, a place that only seems to exist on the radio and TV. Everyone yearns for this prosperous future to arrive, like the train in the song "Platform" that gives the movie its sense of expectancy.
The '80s were very much a transitional decade in China, and Jia doesn't have any false nostalgia for its hardships. What he savors are lives lived in their incidental moments—not controlled by economics or history—like two women sitting in a window smoking and retouching each other's eyebrows. Platform reminds you a bit of American Graffiti in this way—it's all about the power of hearing a new song on the radio, and how it transports you to a different place. Only here, that radio is likely to be in a flatbed truck broken down somewhere in the desert en route to Mongolia for a performance for coal-mine workers.
SEPT. 6 BRINGS many old flicks to DVD, including To Kill a Mockingbird, a Garbo collection (10 titles including Ninotchka), Toy Story (with a second disc of extras), Paris Is Burning (with commentary), The Stranger Wore a Gun (with Randolph Scott), and three noir titles from Fox (The House on 92nd Street, Whirlpool, and Somewhere in the Night). From Korea, newer are the near-silent charmer 3-Iron (a favorite at SIFF) and Kim Ki-duk's The Coast Guard. From TV are Gunsmoke (the first of some 600 episodes), season one of Lost, and season two of Oliver's Twist Kitchen. We'll review Crash next week.