The independent news organization of Duke University

Neorealism travelled East

movie big mouth

In Blind Mountain/Mang Shan (Li Yang, 2007), director Li Yang tells a loose yet haunting narrative about a kidnapped young woman who is sold to a villager as a bride in the mountains of China. The film centers on her various futile attempts to escape and commit suicide. Like many other of his peers, Li seeks to present the untold stories behind China’s remarkable economic progress with an urgent social concern: exploitation, marginalization, desertion, and rootlessness. Evidently, Li’s film has demonstrated the profound influence of Italian neorealism on the Chinese Sixth Generation filmmakers. Although the two cinemas are separated by geography and a time span of half a century, they share a common impulse to chronicle everyday life and, above all, a humanistic concern. In this article, I shall use Pickpocket/Xiao Wu (Jia Zhangke, 1997) as an example to illustrate how the Sixth Generation has inherited and expounded the aesthetic ideals of neorealism and integrated the spirits of humanism in China’s context.

Like his neorealist predecessors, Jia employs many techniques to add to the crudeness of the reality: on-location shooting, long shots and long takes, uninterrupted editing, ambiguous narrative, etc. Andre Bazin, a prominent advocate of neorealism, contends that the use these techniques demonstrates that neorealism is more than simply documenting reality, but is something profoundly aesthetic. Bazin believes that realist filmmakers are creating “an illusion of reality,” which is in itself oxymoronic: artists have to employ artificial techniques to distinguish realist films from pure reality; however, such a process very likely destroys the reality the films try to restore. Jia himself agreed with this sentiment by stating that perfect reality is impossible; rather, “realism” is an attitude or cinematic ideal for filmmakers. The key is, then, how Jia and his neorealist predecessors had constructed reality through cinematic devices and ideology.

Long shots, long takes and deep focus are the hallmarks of Pickpocket and many other Jia’s early films. This particular kind of camerawork and editing serves important functions in neorealism works. Bazin contended that classical editing breaks the continuity of reality by forcing the audience to see different parts of the scene. Orson Welles, however, defied such tradition by intelligently using deep focus lens to make every part of the field equally sharp. Welles’ camerawork, Bazin claimed, had lent his Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) incredible realism. Uninterrupted long takes served similar purposes to liberate the audience from the dictation of camera on what to see so they would be more active in discerning which detail to focus on. Such innovative camerawork was clearly seen in many Italian filmmakers’ works. For instance, in Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948), when Antonio Ricci looked guiltily at a bicycle he was planning to steal on a street, there is no close-up to highlight the intensity like in classical editing. Instead, the continuous long shot allows the audience to freely interpret his motives and actions. In doing so, the neorealist cinema leaves the audience to interpret reality, instead of manipulating it as in the Soviet traditions.

Pickpocket clearly has inherited this tradition in depicting realism. The film is an assemblage of long takes, with the longest reaching six minutes. The lack of close-ups in the film consistently places the audience as a distant observer of the cruel urban reality in China. For instance, the four-minute long take that depicts the confrontation between Xiao Wu and Xiao Yong not only preserves the continuity and ambiguity of reality, but also accentuates the tension between two friends. As Xiao Wu questions Xiao Yong why he is not invited to the wedding, Xiao Yong evades his questions and accusations. The conversation is filled with awkward silence as the two former friends, now separated by newly defined social statuses, have little to say to each other. Moreover, Jia further infused documentary realism into the film with the extensive use of handheld camera. For instance, in the opening sequence, the image appears particularly shaky as the camera tracks the pickpocket gang walking along the street to be interviewed by news media, as if the audience is following them right behind.

In addition, neorealist films are known for the use of non-professional actors and on-location shooting. For instance, the shooting of Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) began in the post-war ruins of Rome immediately after its liberation. While using amateur actors and shooting on the spot may be due to budget constraint, Bazin highlights a more important reason: the rejection of Hollywood typecasting and studio system. Such rejection serves to eliminate any audience’s preconception of the film and cements its realism by having non-professional actors playing roles parallel to their lives.

Jia’s films have clearly reflected these features. Just like Bicycle Thieves or Shoeshine (Vittorio De Sica, 1946), the entire cast of Pickpocket consists of amateur actors. Film critic Jason McGarth describes that Pickpocket has a strong urge of taking a camera into an uncontrolled public space and capture random everyday events and objects. The exterior shots on the street are filled with quotidian activities of random people passing by. For instance, at the 48-minute mark of the film, a high-angle long take tracks two people walking down the street. From that angle, we plainly observe the daily movements of the townspeople—a blacksmith concentrating on his task; another man idly standing in front of his store, smoking; a woman walking with a child sitting on her bicycle.

Moreover, through on-location shooting, Jia has managed to further integrate the spontaneity of passers-by into his narrative world. In the ending shot, the long take changes from an eye-level shot of Xiao Wu to a point-of-view shot from his angle of the onlookers. A sudden pivotal pan followed by subsequent pans mimicking Xiao Wu’s head turning creates an impression that the crowd is gazing at us (or Xiao Wu). The camera thus captures the spontaneous reactions of unknowing passers-by on seeing someone tied to a cable by the street. Thus, Jia has solved a key problem of on-location shooting that “extras” often gaze at the lens, by integrating their reaction into part of the diegesis. As seen, Jia has not only inherited but also developed the concept of on-location shooting of Italian neorealism to enhance the cinema-verite immediacy of his work.

The ideology behind Italian neorealism and the Chinese Sixth Generation Movement is founded on a series of rejections and affirmations. They both rejected the political dogma of the ruling party (Fascism and Communism) and the Hollywood studio films. They both affirmed a humanistic concern and the aesthetic need to present objective reality and make the audience reflect on it. More importantly, both movements were shaped by a time of great social changes: neorealist filmmakers focus on the themes of war, resistance, liberation and post-war social problems, while the Chinese realist filmmakers underscore the ugly contradictions behind Chinese economic development.

In the past two decades, as the colossal ship of China’s economy hurtled at breakneck speed, her billion passengers were wheeling from motion sickness. Xiao Wu is one such character marginalized and bypassed by such great social changes. The contradictions between Xiao Wu and his surroundings are manifested in the morality of the characters and in the portrayal of state media. Guided by a stronger moral compass, he believes in friends, love and family. But as Xiao Yong, Mei Mei and his family deserts him for money and prestige, he refuses to change. His presence becomes superfluous to his surrounding. Disillusioned, he is sucked into a downward spiral, which concludes when he is caught by the police. In the ending, he is denigrated as a criminal while Xiao Yong, who becomes rich through smuggling tobacco and exploiting prostitutes, is lionized as a successful businessman by the same media. Through these clear contradictions, Jia critically examines the huge social transformation in China and how it threatens to destroy its people and the traditional values they hold dear. The lens of Pickpocket not only confronts reality, but also transcends reality with its moral idealism.

The cinema-verite techniques and humanistic concerns in Pickpocket are clearly a reinvention and integration of Italian neorealism in China’s context. Like Jia, many other Sixth Generation Chinese filmmakers seek to carry on the aesthetic ideals and moral commitment of neorealism to force the Chinese people to reconsider who they are and what they hold dear. That their films are celebrated by the Chinese and world audiences alike demonstrates the enduring legacy of Italian neorealism in film history.

Robin Wang is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "movie big mouth" runs on alternate Tuesdays.


Share and discuss “Neorealism travelled East” on social media.