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'Caught by the Tides' Operates as a Greatest Hits Album to Jia Zhangke's Career Thus Far

Zhao Tao as Qiao Qiao, looking somber as she's about to eat lunch, in Caught by the Tides
Xstream Pictures

After the smashing, unprecedented success of the “fifth generation” of Chinese directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige in the ’90s and ’00s, the “sixth generation” has carried the torch steadily. Sixth generation director Guan Hu just won the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes with his latest film Black Dog. However, the undisputed figurehead of the sixth generation is Jia Zhangke, who is back in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival for the sixth time with his latest film Caught by the Tides. Compared to the lavish epics of the fifth generation, Jia’s films have always been understated, anthropological dramas. Unfortunately, and unjustifiably, his films have only won once for Best Screenplay at Cannes, and this has not changed this year.

One of the possible reasons is that his films, as humanistic and quietly moving as they are, can also be inapproachable and unglamorous to foreign juries. This is certainly true of Caught by the Tides, his most experimental and thus alienating film to date yet. Instead of the multi-generational “epics” he has staged for his last three films, Caught by the Tides makes use of 20 years’ footage (including his previous film’s) for a quasi-documentary approach to weakly lament the changing trends in Chinese life. Jia’s longtime muse and wife Zhao Tao reprises her role of Qiao Qiao from 2002’s Unknown Pleasures, which makes this a film for the serious, most devoted Jia-heads only.

Jia’s last three narrative films have been as “epic” as they come — love stories that span continents and decades. On paper, Caught by the Tides’ story is similar, with Qiao Qiao and Bin (Li Zhubin) trying to find each other across 20 years. But instead of the weepy melodramatics of Hollywood (or violent passages of the recent Jia films), Qiao Qiao and Bin get up to more irrelevant side quests instead. The result is almost a decidedly anti-narrative approach for anthropological study. Festival-goers have been making jokes on the Croisette that Caught by the Tides is a “silent” film, because Zhao Tao says nary a word during the entire film. But her wordless performance is actually one of her bests to date, with many close-ups devoted to capturing her anguish or tears. It’s another historical injustice that she somehow still hasn’t won the Best Actress award at Cannes.

The aforementioned side quests have recurred in Jia’s career, so Caught by the Tides can often feel like a greatest hits’ album, except audiences may find the original albums of those hits more rewarding. For example, the displacement of people for the Three Gorges Dam project is something that reappears here after being the main theme of 2005’s Golden Lion-winning Still Life. But because it’s only one of many themes, the effect is muted. Another example is Zhao Tao dancing to Western pop songs, which has long been a globalist motif in Jia’s films. But as effective or obsessive as it still is, it is beginning to feel a bit been-there-done-that. Somehow, this 20-year-long project is simultaneously Jia’s most ambitious and most low-key.

Caught by the Tides still
Xstream Pictures

Jia’s films used to have stronger emotions, whether anger, curiosity, or deep sadness, but those have seemingly been washed away by time. Caught by the Tides is an even lower-energy film than the ones he’s made. Late in the film, Jia wakes up his film with some TikTok-related shenanigans, which is the only segment with urgency, but still, the effect is more funereal than funny. Caught by the Tides perhaps marks that Jia has entered his “late style” phase of ponderous contemplation.

One detail missed by most English-speaking critics so far is that this is Jia’s first film after completing his stint as a representative in China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress. Yes, even the rebel, who once made multiple banned films, joined the system for five long years. (English Wikipedia considers this detail so unimportant that it is completely absent from his page.) It may be too early to draw conclusions, but perhaps the low energy mode of Caught by the Tides is a reflection and resignation after those years spent in the system. The laments of Jia Zhangke have never been so resigned and unable to move any needle, even within his niche audience. 

Still, Caught by the Tides is interesting on a metatextual level, even if only on that level. The intertextual use of old footage means that this is probably a film only for the initiated. Moreover, this lower-energy mode perhaps only makes sense to those who have seen Jia’s evolution over the last 20 years. At the same time, it’s essential to Jia completionists as it can act as a meta commentary on his whole career. And of course, his observations on the relentless growth of hyper-capitalist China still touch all of those who have lived under or around it (which can basically extend to the entire global population). This is definitely not recommended for those who are new to Jia, only for those who have had a career-long interest in China’s preeminent director on the global stage. But if you don’t, what are you waiting for?


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