Jia Zhang-ke’s “Useless” – 2007 New York Film Festival Review

Jia Zhang-ke’s new documentary “Useless” is an unusual and beautifully meditative portrait of an artist and her connection to the society around her. One of the greatest filmmakers working today, Jia’s previous fictional features (“Xiao Wu,” “Platform,” “Unknown Pleasures,” “The World,” “Still Life”) comprise a valuable and evocative response to China’s rapid changes and their impact on the population. With a patient, painterly eye, Jia’s vivid characterizations and landscapes possess a mesmerizing, often melancholic beauty, and are less political than humanist in their pointed critiques of China’s current historical trends. Jia has recently turned to documentaries, which prove to be fascinating extensions of his fiction films.

“Useless” is less a typical documentary than a ruminative essay on the meaning and function of clothing in Chinese society: how it is manufactured and sold, as well as the contrasting relationships between people and their clothing, according to their status in society. “Useless” is the second installment in Jia’s “Trilogy of Artists,” a series of portraits of Chinese artists who he wants to introduce to a larger audience. Jia believes that intellectuals and creative thinkers are often marginalized in China today, and that their insights are often unheeded in the extreme consumerism prevalent there. These films are his effort to counteract this. The first film of the trilogy, “Dong”, followed painter Liu Xiaodong in his travels through the Three Gorges area and Thailand. “Useless” echoes many of the same stylistic strategies of that earlier film. There is no narration or overt attempt to impose a particular point of view. Jia (aided considerably by the elegant camerawork of Yu Lik-wai, his regular cinematographer) lets the images speak for themselves, and allows the juxtaposition of images and his editing make their own commentaries.

“Useless” is structured as a triptych, its three distinct sections detailing the different phases of clothing manufacture. The film begins with gliding tracking shots of a garment factory in Guangzhou, reminiscent of a similarly staged opening sequence in Jennifer Baichwal’s recent documentary “Manufactured Landscapes.” The workers go about their quotidian tasks, some being examined by an on-site physician in scenes free of narrative commentary and interviews. A rather odd scene of workers sliding though a locked gate in order to eat in the cafeteria is left unexplained. Jia effectively evokes the atmosphere of this type of workplace without resorting to the strident agitprop of other films which set out to expose the exploitation of such workers.

The film then turns its attention to a retail store, where the clothing line Exception is being sold. This line is the creation of the film’s subject, fashion designer Ma Ke. She explains that what inspired her to be a designer was her sense of shame at the fact that China was mostly known as a source of cheap, disposable goods, and that much of the clothing being manufactured were knockoff versions of foreign brands. She wanted to create a quality line of clothing to prove that Chinese could be creative in these areas as well. The Exception line was her attempt to create a brand that would be as recognized as foreign brands. In 2006 Ma created a new, “completely personal” line, Useless (“Wu Yong” in Mandarin), which she conceived of to protest China’s neglect of spiritual and creative values in favor of utilitarian, profit-seeking ones. The clothes she designs are heavy, earth-toned creations, which are buried in the earth for a time to, as she puts it, “give them a history.” This is her way to evoke the traditional values of handcrafting which she feels is in danger of disappearing. By boldly declaring her creations “Useless,” Ma asserts the artist’s prerogative to critique a society that insists that everything must have a practical purpose, instead of being appreciated for their own sake.

Jia offers an amusing, and revealing, illustration of the attitudes Ma opposes in a brief early scene in a Louis Vuitton store, where a group of stylishly dressed young women, members of a “Friends of Vuitton” club, talk fashion. “Prada’s designs are very philosophical,” one of them pontificates. They debate the merits of different designers, their labels ostentatiously adorning the women’s bodies. Like many other scenes in this film, this one could have easily been written for one of Jia’s fiction films.

Jia documents Ma’s presentation of Useless at Paris Fashion Week in February 2007, detailing the preparations of the elaborate stage show, in which the models, faces covered with mud, stand on lightboxes on a dirt-covered floor. There are some amusing scenes concerning the models’ difficulty putting on this heavy clothing. After her show in Paris, we return to Ma’s life in China, where she lives in a large house with a big lawn and dogs she plays with. In a scene which transitions to the film’s final section, she drives to the small mining town of Fenyang, in Shanxi province, explaining that she prefers to live outside of big cities, because she can be closer and gain more inspiration from rural life. She drives away, and is gone from the film. The camera then follows a man who has been walking along the same road Ma’s has been driving.

The final third of the film is its strongest and most affecting section, and the part that most resembles Jia’s fictional features. Shanxi is Jia’s birthplace, and he brings his deep affinities with these people to bear on the mini-portraits he offers here. The man the camera follows picks up his clothes from a local seamstress, whom the film stays with for a time. She argues with her husband about his excessive drinking. Jia talks to two other customers, a young married couple who both work in the local mine. He asks them where they buy clothes and how they choose what they wear. The husband says he often picks out his wife’s clothes, but “she is beautiful whatever she wears.” His wife laughs, embarrassed by her husband’s flattery. Jia later visits the local mine, where we observe a group of miners staring into the camera, and later washing the coal dust off their bodies. The film ends with a local tailor, whose place will be torn down to make way for development. Far from the worlds of mass production and haute couture fashion shows, these people regard clothing as part and parcel of the necessity to survive in often precarious circumstances.

“Useless” offers a quietly subtle yet provocative portrait of globalization at its most human level. Jia refuses to spoon-feed us conclusions and opinions, leaving viewers to make up their own minds. However, one problem with the film is that Jia takes Ma’s assertion of her connections to rural life too much at face value. He fails to challenge the contradictions inherent in her claims to oppose the societal changes which have left the China’s rural population in the cold, while at the same time creating clothes that are impossible to wear, and living in a fashion that separates her from these very people. Notwithstanding this flaw, Jia has created a fascinating snapshot of China today which is a worthy addition to his impressive oeuvre.