David Jenkins


Caught by the Tides – first-look review

The Chinese maestro delivers his greatest film in this cut-and-paste jukebox musical melodrama.

Caught by the Tides is a wondrous masterpiece from Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, a sprawling work of experimental audio-visual fusion that stands as the heady culmination of what is already one of the most storied and acclaimed careers in 21st century cinema.

Yet the experimental basis of its montage – the result of the director attempting to find a place for snatches of footage from a personal archive that he’s been amassing over the years – somehow culminates in a heartbreaking romantic melodrama of the type that was being made by Japanese filmmakers such as Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi. Oh, and one more thing: Jia’s recent yen for reformulating classical genre sees Caught by the Tides also framed as an eclectic jukebox musical that mixes bubblegum electro-pop ditties, languorous folksongs and all the hits of the Shanghai Opera rotation.

This is a film that follows a relationship across a couple of decades, and much like Naruse’s classic, Floating Clouds, it’s about a man and a woman who are in love with one another, but never at the same time. We’re in Datong City, a one-time mining hub that has fallen on tough times. Wandering model and dancer Quioquio (Zhao Tao) is a pretty ghost who allows her face and her eyes to talk for her, even though she doesn’t have much to say. She’s in some kind of relationship with smalltime mover and shaker Brother Bin (Li Zhuhbin), but it appears as if she is perhaps one of many female companions.

His decision to leave town and for more economically verdant climes takes him to Fengjie, the site of mass cultural devastation and displacement due to the government’s Three Gorges Dam project. He tells Quioquio to wait for him and he’ll call her, but he never does. And so she decides to follow, and reconnect with her lover. Scenes of Zhao wandering amid the urban devastation, but only interested in locating Brother Bing, as both horribly tragic and deeply romantic. The situations that Quioquio finds herself in, and the lengths she goes to re-ignite this flame are testament to her love. Yet Jia never makes this tip over into psychosis or obsession – it’s a suggestion that, in a place where people have so little, what else would there be to search for?

This Antonioni-esque journey of lilting existential reflection muses on how we deal with emotional absence, how we interact with (or ignore) the immediate landscape, and it even ponders whether the endgame of rampant commercialism is not one that involves human beings. There’s a beautiful sequence in which Quioquio interacts with a service robot at a shopping mall, in which she teases it into reading the emotions on her face. Jia also appears to be a fan of TikTok in its capacity to suddenly enrich the most unexpected of subjects. He is certainly measured when it comes to gauging the impact of the techno-apolcalypse.

Caught by the Tides is a rich and densely layered text whose many intellectual postulations are buoyed by a central storyline that is so nakedly romantic that it creates a perfect balance of brain and heart food. The first chapter will take a little perseverance, but it’s finale contains one of the most perfect scenes the director has ever shot, capping off what surely must be one of his most exhilarating and profound works to date. And it must be noted that this is the confirmation (were it needed) that Zhao Tao is one of, if not the, greatest living screen actor.

Published 18 May 2024

Tags: Chinese Cinema Jia Zhang-ke Michelangelo Antonioni Zhao Tao

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