Drunk for Life: Music in the Films of Jia Zhangke

By Sean Gilman

One of the most interesting things about Jia Zhangke as a director is his use of popular music not just as an ornament, a signifier of time and place or a shorthand vehicle for emotional clarity, but as a structuring element. Throughout his work, from his debut feature Xiao Wu in 1997 though his latest, Ash is Purest White, music has been integral to his characters’ lives, not just their feelings but their visions of themselves and in turn the ways we in the audience perceive them. A source of pure aesthetic joy in often dreary and lonely landscapes, music in Jia’s movies is aspirational, a dream of freedom and cosmopolitan wonder, a balm against the harsh realities of modern capitalism. Jia’s musical choices are always associational, they are meant to remind the viewer of the time and place they first heard them, whether on a cheap radio in the first days after the Cultural Revolution or on a bootleg VCD of an imported Hong Kong blockbuster, or on a pair of iPod headphones shared with your mom. The following are some of my favorite uses of music in Jia Zhangke movies.

“Shi Fou (Whether or Not)” by Julie Su in Platform

A scene form the film ‘Platform’ (2000) by Jia Zhangke.

Jia’s 2000 film Platform is about a decade in the life of a small provincial performing arts troupe as they grow up and apart in the 1980s, the period between the end of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square. About two-thirds of the way through the film, the dancer played by Zhao Tao has left the troupe and is working in an office. Late one night, working alone, she hears this song on the radio and is swept away, performing a lovely ballet to it, an expression of the artistic soul still lurking under her now respectable profession. Zhao herself was a dancer and was working as a dance teacher when she got the part in Platform. Apparently Jia asked to observe one of her classes as part of the casting process and ended up giving her the role instead. She’s starred in every one of his fiction features (and a few of his documentaries) ever since and the two were married in 2012.

“Nights of Ulan Bator” arranged by Lim Giong in The World

A scene from the film ‘The World’ (2004) by Joa Zhangke.

This is a traditional Mongolian folk song adapted by composer Lim Giong in one of The World’s more tender moments. The song also gives a section of that film its title, and Zhao Tao even sings it at one point as well. You can hear a lovely full version of the song here, by the band Smile (Ineemseglel). The World, set in a Beijing amusement park that offers scale models of various landmarks from around the world (the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower, the World Trade Center, the Taj Mahal) along with musical and dance performances in various cultural styles, was based on Zhao’s stories of dancer friends she’d had who worked at the park. Lim Giong, who composed the music for all but one of Jia’s films between The World in 2004 and Ash is Purest White, is probably best known for his work with Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, starring in his The Puppetmaster, Goodbye South Goodbye, and Good Men Good Women as well as composing the scores for many of Hou’s movies, including Millennium Mambo, Three Times, and The Assassin.

“Heart Rain” by Yang Yuying & Mao Ning in Xiao Wu

Jia’s 1997 debut feature (not counting the hour-long Xiao Shan Going Home he completed while still a student in 1995) is about a young pickpocket who finds himself wandering the streets of his (and Jia’s) hometown of Fenyang, increasingly estranged from his old friends and family. The soundscape of the movie is relentless: constantly we hear the noise of a town undergoing a massive transformation. Sounds of construction and street noise, overheard conversations and arguments and business deals, dominate Xiao Wu’s world, hemming the young man inside a wall of sound. But most of all we hear music, snippets here and there, but sometimes longer bits. Music structures and defines Xiao Wu’s world: it is everywhere and it means everything. “Heart Rain” is heard several times, mostly in the film’s middle section, where it’s a karaoke staple. The version appears to be this then popular duet by Yang Yuying and Mao Ning, but as far as I can tell, the song was originally performed in the early 1980s by a Taiwanese singer named Lilian Lee (Li Bihua), which happens to be the name of the reclusive author of the novel on which the film Farewell, My Concubine was based. Xiao Wu hears a song from that movie as well (by Tu Honggang), and later hears a song by a performer named Lily Lee. Surely this profusion of Lili(an) Lees is no coincidence. Regardless, the best musical moment in the movie isn’t from a recording, or even a karaoke performance, it’s a touching a cappella rendition of Faye Wong’s “Tian Kong (Sky)”, which Xiao Wu’s would-be girlfriend sings to him. She asks him to sing her a song in return, but he can’t do it: he has to let a musical lighter express his emotions for him (it plays “Für Elise”).

“Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh in Ash is Purest White

One of the highpoints in Xiao Wu (Pickpocket) comes early in the film, as the main character stands in a busy street smoking a cigarette while the sound of John Woo’s The Killer plays from somewhere off-screen, including a long stretch of that film’s primary musical theme, “Drunk for Life” (“淺醉一生”, which I’ve also seen translated as “Shallow Drunk Life”. I go back and forth on which version of the title I prefer). The song is ubiquitous in The Killer, as was the theme of Woo’s previous A Better Tomorrow (sung by Leslie Cheung), less a motif than the soul of the movie. The story of an assassin with a heart of gold played by Chow Yun-fat who accidentally blinds and then cares for a young singer (played by Sally Yeh herself), the song’s sweet romantic longing counterbalances the movie’s extreme violence, providing an oasis of innocence for its damaged heroes, an ideal they can never reach. The song recurs in a few more of Jia Zhangke’s films, most prominently in Ash is Purest White, where it explains how the lead characters, played by Zhao Tao and Liao Fan, see themselves as gangster-heroes in the tradition of Woo’s stars, inheritors of the outlaw tradition of wuxia film and literature transposed into the present day. The film is structured after A Better Tomorrow, with a parting and a return marked by exile and handicap. At one point Liao Fan and his gang are watching another Chow Yun-fat film from the same era, Taylor Wong’s Tragic Hero, while the Sally Yeh song plays on the soundtrack—a hint perhaps of Liao’s true nature: he thinks he’s a John Woo hero, but really he belongs in the far more mediocre Taylor Wong’s copycat world. 
Zhao Tao plays the film’s true wuxia hero: she even gets introduced with George Lam’s famous rendition of the Wong Fei-hung theme song “Mr. Strong Man” (used in dozens of movies, Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series among them).

“Go West” by Pet Shop Boys in Mountains May Depart

Mountains May Depart (2015)

Zhao’s best introduction though comes in Mountains May Depart, where the film opens on her leading a community group in a dance to the song, framed by a proscenium arch, which the camera swoops past into the pure joy of the performance. Among the dancers are the two men who will soon be vying for Zhao’s affections, leading to the long slow decline that was the dream of the late 90s, of young adulthood, as it moved into the 21st Century and beyond. The song, a cover of an old Village People tune, is full of hope and wonder, a perfect avatar for the feelings of China’s youth as they embarked on a wildly accelerated path of modernization. Mountains May Depart is about that journey, and about the things these particular young people lost along the way: friends, family, their homes, even their language. The Pet Shop Boys’s version begins with the sound of waves crashing and seagulls squawking, a sound which Jia makes ingenious use of in looping back to it, and Zhao, in the movie’s final moments. Even the dance incorporates this element, as Zhao moves her arms in a wavelike motion to the music. And her name, Tao (涛), which is also her character’s name, can be translated as “great waves”. Like mountains perhaps, waves depart, but they also return. Another Sally Yeh song, “Take Care” provides a poignant connection between mother and son, but it’s the Pet Shop Boys that ultimately brings them together, if only through the magic of editing and overlapping sound.

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