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‘Swimming Out’ Film Review: Jia Zhang-Ke Keeps His Eye on a Changing China

In “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue,” the auteur examines the nation’s evolving cultural perspectives through a quartet of authors

The great Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-Ke has made both dramas and documentaries across his award-winning career so far, yet what binds all his movies is a sense that the labels of fiction and non-fiction aren’t as necessary as the observation that what he’s working in is a large, unimpeachable truth about people and progress in a rapidly changing China.

Sometimes it comes in story form, but against a hard reality — like his early pictures about disaffected teenagers (“Platform,” “Unknown Pleasures”) or his Three Gorges dam film “Still Life” — and sometimes the focus is real people, but always in the context of the vast narrative that is China’s monumental economic and social transformation, a distinction that marks his latest documentary, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.”

Having made two previous documentaries about artists — 2006’s “Dong,” about painter Liu Xiaodong, and 2007’s “Useless,” a snapshot of clothing designer Ma Ke — “Swimming” continues his look at the arts in China, this time through a quartet of noteworthy Chinese authors whose provincial backgrounds, like Jia’s, left an indelible mark on their cultural perspective. It’s also arguably the least accessible of the three to date for audiences unfamiliar with its subjects; where painting and design, by their visual nature, help seed a speedy appreciation when represented on film, a writer’s significance is tougher to convey if the books haven’t been read. But that doesn’t keep “Swimming” from still being a compelling mix of a vanishing past, recollections from contemporary authors born between the 1950s and the 1970s — Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong — and the history that shaped them.

That history starts, of course, with 1949, and a ’50s collectivism movement that transformed rural life. Jia centers the first part of “Swimming” on the proud memories of older farmers from one such village in his home province of Shanxi, weaving in the life experience of a rural-focused journalist-author from that period, the late Ma Feng, as an intro of sorts to the kind of linkages Jia is after. (Jia includes footage he himself shot in that same village in 1979, ultimately used in his first film, “Platform.”) And as an author might, Jia also breaks up his informed paean into chapters, with titles simple yet expansive, like what ordinary people and conscientious writers might care about: “Eating,” “Love,” “Returning Home,” “The Old and the New,” and “Journeys.”

Jia then shows footage from what inspired the film, the first-ever literary festival in that village — overlapping author voices on the soundtrack suggesting what it must have felt like for well-read villagers to hear from so many writers in one spot at one time — which becomes the segue for the selected interviews that dominate the rest of the film.

These aren’t inquiries into the writer’s process, however. They’re affecting personal histories of life changes in an evolving country, told with wisdom, humor and emotion about what’s lost in what’s gained. Jia Pingwa, the oldest, recounts the devastating impact his teacher father’s forced labor sentence (for being called, unfairly, a counter-revolutionary) had on his own writerly ambitions as the Cultural Revolution upended lives. Impishly funny Yu Hua — who wrote the peasant epic from which Zhang Yimou’s “To Live” was adapted — recalls with biting wit how his first-ever passed note from a schoolgirl turned out to be a withering critique, and how he was spurred to imagine the endings that had been ripped out of the banned books he read. His early success was in line with China’s first gestures toward opening up.

Liangzhuang-born writer Liang Hong, a ’70s child who is now a professor, can’t hold back tears as she describes the ways her poor, large family held together through illness, death, her father’s remarriage, and social humiliation, and how those complicated bonds in village communities have inspired her acclaimed writing. When Jia invites Liang’s teenage son to say a few written words about himself on camera, it’s charming, awkward and wistful. He struggles to recreate his ancestral village’s dialect, and he wishes he’d known his grandfather more. (“Did he ever want to see the world?”)

Since Jia’s early “hometown” trilogy of movies about the tech-enabled malaise of a new generation of young Chinese coping with the change all around them, the director’s focus has, like a careful pan that also patiently zooms out, started to look back as often as it’s framed in the now. If “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” and its intimate tapestry of peasant fortitude and artistic endeavor won’t be as immediately resonant to audiences outside of China as his expansive masterpieces “A Touch of Sin” or “Still Life” are, it’s still a valuable document.

It boasts the same humanity and intelligence about the nation’s race to achieve modern success — to keep swimming out, Yu Hua once wrote, until the sea is the color it always is in books — that is Jia’s admirably grand and reliably melancholy theme.

“Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” opens in select U.S. theaters May 28.