Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (2020)

Possibly the finest from Jia in recent years, this unexpectedly affecting documentary remarkably paints a portrait of China in the second half of the 20th century through the diverse oral histories of renowned literary figures. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,472

Dir. Jia Zhangke
2020 | China | Documentary/History | 112 min | 1.85:1 | Mandarin
Not rated – likely to be PG

Director Jia Zhangke interviews three prominent authors—Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong—from the same Shanxi province where Jia also grew up. We hear of the dire circumstances they faced in their villages and towns, from the social revolution of the 1950s through the unrest of the late 1980s.
Nom. for Documentary Award (Berlinale)
International Sales: MK2

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – China’s History; Literature; Memories
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

After three consecutive narrative features in A Touch of Sin (2013), Mountains May Depart (2015) and Ash Is Purest White (2018), Jia Zhangke goes back to documentary filmmaking mode with Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, which had its world premiere at the Berlinale. 

In what could be the finest in recent years from China’s premier auteur, Swimming tackles the history of China, specifically the second half of the 20th century, through the recollection of personal memories of several renowned literary figures. 

I’ll be honest, I don’t really know much about these writers, but it isn’t necessary at all to be well-acquainted with them or their works because Zhang’s approach is not literary but empathetically thematic as he breaks his film into eighteen chapters (with titles like ‘Father’, ‘Mother’, Going Home’, ‘Eating’, ‘Love’, etc.), some lasting as short as only several minutes. 

“He holds the hoe up in the air as if he were holding a flag of toil.”

Some chapters are loosely connected and share the same interviewee—as such, one might find Swimming to be more cohesive, and hence, more compelling than, say, Jia’s earlier Shanghai-centered I Wish I Knew (2010), which didn’t work that well for me despite possessing a similar modus operandi and intent. 

The most remarkable thing about Swimming is that while it is about how things were in China over the decades, Jia allows his subjects to paint more personal anecdotes as the film progresses, to the extent that we as viewers would find it difficult to locate a point in the film when it turns unexpectedly affecting. 

Grade: A-



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