Saturday, June 22, 2024

“CAUGHT BY THE TIDES”

THE STORY – A woman looks for her lost lover in a search that takes decades, allowing for a lyrical portrait of the transformation of modern China.

THE CAST – Zhao Tao, Li Zhubin, Pan Jianlin, Lan Zhou, Zhou You, Ren Ke & Mao Tao

THE TEAMJia Zhangke (Director/Writer) & Wan Jiahuan (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 111 Minutes


The latest film from Chinese director Jia Zhangke operates on multiple levels, depending on your familiarity with the filmmaker’s previous work. On the surface, “Caught By the Tides” is a masterclass in minimalism, telling a touching romantic story with little to no dialogue. The nature of the story—a search that spans decades and multiple Chinese provinces—means that the film is also an almost documentary-like portrait of modern China and its transformation over the last twenty years.

However, if you have seen Jia’s filmography, the film gains an added dimension, as it essentially repurposes footage from his previous movies. This achieves an effect similar to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” as the characters visibly age on screen in front of our very eyes. The full effect will be lost on audience members not entirely au fait with Jia’s work (particularly 2002’s “Unknown Pleasures”). Still, the romantic impact remains powerful, while the portrait of evolving China is tinged with complex emotion.

The film begins in 2002 in the industrial city of Datong in Northern Shanxi. Zhao Tao, the director’s wife, and frequent muse, plays Qiaoqiao, a young woman who makes her living as a model – wearing swimsuits outdoors to entice customers into malls, that sort of thing – and occasional singer, either in clubs or as a part of a choir that entertains factory workers. Qiaoqiao is in an ill-defined relationship with Brother Bin (Li Zhubin, another of Jia’s frequent collaborators), a promoter who occasionally works as her manager and doesn’t seem very affectionate towards her.

When Bin tells Qiaoqiao he is leaving town to find better work prospects (without giving his actual destination), he promises to send for her when he has enough money. However, Qiaoqiao feels she has unfinished business with Bin, so she sets off on an epic journey to find him – a journey that takes her down the Yangtze River and through multiple Chinese provinces, including the region of Three Gorges, Fengjui and all the way down to Guangdong in the South.

As the years pass and Qiaoqiao continues her search, there is a sense of her journeying through time, as China itself seems to transform around her, modernization and capitalism encroaching at every turn. Jia heightens this effect through the use of fluid montage sequences, capturing the feel of long journeys (particularly in the riverboat and train sequences) in mesmerizing lyrical fashion.

As the years unfold and Qiaoqiao embarks on her quest, there is a palpable sense of her traversing through time, mirroring the evolving landscape of China. The relentless march of modernization and capitalism, ever encroaching, is masterfully portrayed by Jia through the use of fluid montage sequences. These sequences, particularly in the riverboat and train journeys, are captured in a mesmerizing lyrical fashion, drawing the audience deeper into Qiaoqiao’s transformative journey.

There are other delightful moments of humor, too. The film’s best scene involves Qiaoqiao encountering a friendly robot in a department store, whose face-reading capacity has been hampered somewhat by the pandemic, as Qiaoqiao is wearing a mask. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t read your face,” the robot apologizes before deciding she must be sad and trying to cheer her up with quotes from Mother Theresa and Mark Twain (“The human race only has one effective weapon, and that is laughter”).

That pandemic period constitutes the most new material shot for the film, as Qiaoqiao and Bin are finally reunited in the most mundane circumstances. The fact that both are wearing COVID masks when it happens gives the moment an unexpected poignancy that feels achingly romantic, even if the scene doesn’t play out quite the way you expect.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Part low-key love story, part social commentary, and part travelog, this is a lyrical story of a country's transformation over time, told in expertly minimalist fashion.

THE BAD - Audiences unfamiliar with the director's previous work will miss the full scope of what Jia Zhangke has accomplished here, as the integration of footage from his previous films into a new story that still makes sense is extremely impressive.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Part low-key love story, part social commentary, and part travelog, this is a lyrical story of a country's transformation over time, told in expertly minimalist fashion.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Audiences unfamiliar with the director's previous work will miss the full scope of what Jia Zhangke has accomplished here, as the integration of footage from his previous films into a new story that still makes sense is extremely impressive.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"CAUGHT BY THE TIDES"