Jia’s best films are insistently about the articulation of “space” amid seemingly insurmountable constraints. In these films, Jia strives to engender a state of serene dynamism in which the sublime is possible. The space that Jia aims for is interior, although the exterior is also incorporated in the articulation, reflecting a central element of Chinese aesthetics. The overwhelming politics in Platform, the naked material greed in The World, and the blatant hubris in Still Life are not simply scorned and despised; instead they are “dissipated” in the expanse of unencumbered imaginative flights. The flowing rhythm of the scene in The World in which the lady boss and the main male character contemporaneously step into a little slow dancing; the compact tension of the scene in Platform in which the protagonist unhesitatingly closes the door of the beat-up taxi van taking away his girlfriend for good; and the elegant fluidity of the scene in Still Life in which a teenage girl dreamily roller skates on a rooftop with the Yangtze River in the background are just a few examples of transcendence and transformation in Jia’s films.
The subject of his latest film is a city, Shanghai, of branded images, a stubborn case of monosemy (having a rigidly defined nature). Yet the Shanghai Jia represents on screen is polysemic (having multiple meanings that reflect different assumptions and perspectives) and nuanced, not monosemic and clichéd. It is a Shanghai seen from the vantage point of remembrance, not because of nostalgia but for perspective. Nabokov said in one of his novels, Ada, that “reality is always a form of memory, even at the moment of its perception.” Through the commentaries and recollections of a number of individuals whose lives have been profoundly shaped by Shanghai, Jia gives the city the depth and breadth it deserves.