Film Review: “Swimming Out Till Sea Turns Blue” Confuses Poetry with Politics
Swim until the sea turns blue confuses poetry with politics.
Is Jia Zhang-ke Swim until the sea turns blue public art or political art? This documentary on survival in the People’s Republic of China appeals to our humanist sympathies, but current conditions make it sound like propaganda.
The gray, carefully modeled and realistic sculptures of ethnic Chinese, featured in the film’s opening shots, evoke what was once called the portrait of the “man’s family.” The genre was named after the legendary Edward Steichen Museum of Modern Art exhibition in 1955, which brought together international photographic essays on “the range of life, from birth to death”. But today, such a panoply looks different. Jia Zhang-ke’s documentary exhibition uses the humanist portrait in a deceptive way. Its unhappy people – faces and facts devoid of political analysis – are like a brainwashing army. It sounds like Chinese Communist life as Western progressives want to romanticize it.
The difficulties that normally arouse empathy, in socialist terms, inspire a political need for justice, equality and nostalgic allegiance. Swim outside promotes this ideological shift through several bad luck stories familiar to American leftists, especially that of the Chinese literary elite. It focuses on four authors, Jia Pingwa, Ma Feng, Liang Hong and Yu Hua. Americans may know Yu Hua, whose 1994 novel Live was filmed by Zhang Yimou in a neorealist melodrama style close to that of Swim outside.
Jia Zhang-ke has recently embarked on several semi-documentaries which, although personalized, closely correspond to the official Chinese representation. Affirming himself as an ambassador of the lifestyles of our main opponent / competitor, he is aware of social conditions as such, but his films make peace with the difficulties that result from communist restrictions.
Left-wing American critics who praised Platform (2000), Unknown pleasures (2002), The world (2004), and A touch of sin (2013) seem to like Jia Zhang-ke as a harbinger of political possibilities for America. But every time I see a Jia Zhang-ke film, I get stuck on the difficulties, trials and prohibitions that are behind every story it tells. (Ash is the purest white, as of 2018, is the exception, mainly for Tao Zhao’s magnetic performance as a no-frills survivor.) Swim outside is a reminder that what is promising for progressives will seem fascist to most Americans.
Jia Zhang-ke’s interviews of ordinary men are reminiscent of how Warren Beatty red only paid attention to “witnesses” who were also political celebrities. A sin red, the individual testimonies here ask for our indulgence towards those accustomed to politics – no dissident is welcome. Liang Hong remembers an old man who believes in communism because he sold a kilogram of seeds to the government. Should Americans admire this example of obedience? Or the stories of scarcity? Or restrictive social customs? Or nostalgic reminiscences of mass mobilization during the Cultural Revolution? Is it information or indoctrination?
Yu Hua recounts having read books with torn covers and pages without titles or authors, but he excuses the deprivation by strangely recalling “The International” and its atheist and collectivist words “There are no supreme saviors / We we have to save ourselves ”. “In the 1990s, especially after Deng Xiaoping’s tour of southern China, the whole nation went into business,” Yu Hua recalls. “The result has been economic prosperity. But he also details the dehumanization of the moment: “Some who had become writers like me gave up their careers to become entrepreneurs. The people who had been together broke up. This testimony is not as moving as that of Chen Kaige Caught in the Web, from 2012, an unambiguous portrayal of emotional complexity and regret in the age of social media.
Swim outsideThe sentimentality of one’s often seems controlled, as if under duress. It’s easy to imagine this film’s elitist sympathy for the distant threats of oppression supported by PEN International. Jia Zhang-ke’s vague intentions make it the most dubious of the recently imported foreign language films. His overly poetic quasi-humanism over the range of life from birth to death seems more official than universal. Jia Zhang-ke’s humanistic portraits never transcend politics, unlike the celebration of ecstatic nature in Soviet master Alexander Dovzhenko. Earth (1931) was ecstatically both. Nowadays, film culture operates in a different territory.