Unknown Pleasures, 2002

An early scene in Unknown Pleasures shows a young man named Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) riding his motorcycle on the way to town and, upon reaching the back room of a nondescript building, unexpectedly catches the curious sight of a man dressed in leisure clothes as he passionately sings an operatic melody – complete with grandiose, sweeping gestures – while standing in the middle of the darkly lit room. The seemingly tangential and comically surreal episode proves to be an unexpectedly insightful image of cultural disconnection for the singer’s perplexed witness as well, as the unemployed Xiao Ji meets up with his equally aimless friend, a recently laid off factory worker at the state-run textile mills named Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei), to pass idle time at the local pool hall. Goaded by the racketeer Xiao Wu (Wong Hang-wei) – the titular, luckless petty criminal from Jia Zhang-ke’s debut film (who subsequently solicits a fee for his idea) – to audition as actors for Mongolian King Liquor’s traveling promotional company (a transient profession that further recalls another early Jia film in the rootless ensemble characters of Platform), the two friends visit a well-attended, corporate-sponsored dance exhibition where a genial and beautiful modern dancer named Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao) performs an interpretive piece choreographed to the pop music song Ren xiao yao before concluding the recital with an obligatory audience handshake – among whom stands the impassive, but visibly beguiled Xiao Ji. However, Xiao Ji’s initial encounter with Qiao Qiao proves to be far from immediate destiny, as a subsequent attempt to make the acquaintance of the enigmatic dancer at a nightclub reveals her long-term involvement with a nefarious character named Qiao San. Similarly, Bin Bin’s profoundly connected relationship with his girlfriend Yuan Yuan (Zhou Qing Feng) seems equally ill fated as the pragmatic young woman prepares for her comprehensive college entrance examinations that, if she successfully completes, will take her away from the insular, industrial city of Datong in the Shanxi province and into the metropolitan city of Beijing to study international finance – an emotionally painful, but necessary move that will ensure her place in China’s global future. Disconnected from their fractured, nuclear families, denied even a marginal livelihood from the safety net factory jobs of their hometown’s flagging textile mills industry, and frustrated in their romantic pursuits, Xiao Ji and Bin Bin devise a naïve plan of escape from their existential inertia.

Unknown Pleasures is an intelligently conceived, visually austere, and understatedly humorous, yet profoundly incisive and relevant contemporary chronicle of cultural disconnection, social disparity, and the economic upheaval of encroaching globalization. Incorporating real-life current events in China during the year 2001 with the fictional (but culturally representational) lives of the post 1980 generation – what Jia calls the “birth control generation” after China’s aggressive, “one child” population control campaign during the 1970s – the filmmaker captures the generation’s life-long sense of isolation (resulting from a government policy that essentially denied them of siblings) that became more acutely palpable during their maturation and adulthood as the nation slowly shifts from insular, outmoded (and largely protected) state-run industries towards a dynamic global economy predicated on competitive trade and technological competence. The alienating culture clash is further reflected in the implicit dichotomy of the news headlines being presented in both the nation’s mixed message international policies: China’s conciliatory tone towards as the nation gains admission into the World Trade Organization and diplomatic goodwill in Beijing’s selection as the host site for the 2008 Olympics that sharply contrasts with the escalating political antagonism caused by the collision of an American and a Chinese aircraft over sovereign airspace; and domestic affairs: the heralded completion of the Beijing-Datong Bridge that nationally illustrates the symbolic unity of two economically and socially disparate cities that is contrasted by a disgruntled laid off worker’s act of sabotage against the state in the bombing of a factory. In the end, it is this muddled confluence of cultural estrangement and intrinsic desire to transcend irreconcilable human reality that inevitably defines the characters’ unarticulated longing and corrupted Taoist philosophy, achieving not an appreciation for the simple joys of everyday life as taught in the writings of Zhuangzi, but a vacuous trivialization of life purpose and justified aimless hedonism – the misguided search for fleeting, unknown pleasures that define a complacent, and ultimately lost generation.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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