While some cry "sell-out," what of the films themselves? Jia's breakthrough came with Platform and Unknown Pleasures, two patiently observed views of hometown ennui that remain his greatest achievements. Attuning his audience to the passing of each moment, he unravels large swaths of time punctuated with signs of his characters' entrapment: the whistling of a kettle; a pair of lovers quarreling on a wall that encircles their city; a motorcycle that repeatedly breaks down. Following these first successes, The World and Still Life seem to focus and intensify Jia's gifts as a visual stylist, applying them to a broader, more boldly surrealistic canvas even as he reveals a weakness for the metaphorically obvious. The recent fiction/non-fiction hybrid 24 City is a triumph of a different order: a seemingly prosaic talking-heads doc that gives off exhilarating sparks of melodrama, allowing Jia's muse Zhao Tao to match the exquisite expressiveness of Gong Li.
Without including two student projects that are rarely discussed and may never see the light of day (One Day in Beijing and Du Du), MoMA's Jia retrospective in March ends up being slightly less than comprehensive. Still, what makes this a hotly anticipated event for the director's die-hards is the screening of early films and numerous shorts currently unavailable on DVD, a surprisingly high percentage of which are among his essential works. The thesis film Xiao Shan Going Home finds a younger (and doughier) Jia giving a hilariously inebriated performance, and serves as an intriguing prelude to Xiao Wu, his first feature-length chronicle of Shanxi province's shiftless youth. In Public is Jia and cinematographer Yu Lik-wai's brilliant first foray into digital video, a glimpse into the ghostly, blue-gray city of Datong caught in one long wordless hush.
Even the UN-commissioned toss-off Black Breakfast and the understated Fei Mu homage Cry Me a River prove fascinating, though partly because they encapsulate a central conflict in recent Jia. Here is an artist who is on the one hand making the most sensually embodied films of his career (witness the pitch-perfect eroticism of a young couple taking off their surgical masks in a polluted industrial wasteland) but on the other is recklessly verging toward a glossy fashion-spread aesthetic. Looking back on the past ten years, cinephiles may very well see them as the decade of Jia: a recent Film Comment poll that announced him as the aughts' best filmmaker was certainly no surprise. But like all canonical contenders, his case is best served by something other than uncritical reverence.