At first glance, Jia Zhangke's 2000 film PLATFORM seems like it might reveal some stretching at the edges of They Shoot Pictures, Don't They's list of the 1,000 most-acclaimed movies of this century. After all, 1,000 movies is a lot, especially when limited to a mere 20 years; there are bound to be quite a few entries that are relatively undistinguished compared their peers on the list. However, PLATFORM has been a critics' darling since its debut, heralded by film festivals and ultimately declared the 2nd best movie of its decade by the Toronto Film Festival. While I'm not quite sure what's going on with that, PLATFORM is a low-key and thoughtful sort-of-coming-of-age story about a country paralyzed by its growing pangs.
Wang Hongwei, Zhao Tao, Liang Jingdong and Yang Tianyi star as young adults who, in the early 1980s, travel with a "Cultural Team" performing Communist propaganda pageants in rural China. Their individualistic artistic aspirations are looked down upon by the manual labor-oriented culture of their parents, just one of several loci of tension creeping in from the modernization of bigger cities influenced by the west. As the performers experience interpersonal struggles in the form of non-committal romances, the people of China likewise seem stunned into inaction by the competing influences of tradition, authoritarian moralism, and the lure of personal expression — which is as frightening for its unknownness as it is tempting for its difference.
Jia is one of the key figures of Chinese cinema's "Sixth Generation" movement, which began as an underground reaction to both government oppression in their own country and the rise of independent filmmaking globally during the 1990s. Even though it was impossible to find PLATFORM in any format better than a low-grade DVD transfer, further muddying its low-budget appearance, Jia's talent is obvious. He's deft at using distance and silence to communicate mood, and his metaphors for China's reluctant and often sideways steps toward reformation are artful and even poignant. Jia's regular collaborators, Wang and Zhao, are very good at relating the insecurity of an uncertain future, and particularly good in her only acting role is filmmaker Yang Tianyi, as their lively but more careless friend Zhong.
Late in PLATFORM, the combination of Jia's withdrawn story-telling, the poor visual quality, the minimalist subtitles, and my probable ignorance of otherwise obvious cultural signifiers, made it difficult to track both the passage of time within the story (more than 10 years, surprisingly) and exactly what some of the characters were up to; prior to that, PLATFORM was always intriguing if just short of fully engaging.