Elbert Ventura on Unknown Pleasures

It says a lot about the state of the world that any country holding up a mirror to itself will invariably find the American specter looming over its shoulder. Perhaps more galling is that the reverse doesn’t hold true: Even in its rare moments of contemplation, America seems to think of no one else but itself. Having helped engineer the globalized moment, the United States has displayed a disconcerting lack of empathy and curiosity about its context and contemporaries. Such is the paradox at the heart of American exceptionalism: to know in your bones that America is better than the world, yet to know nothing of the world at all. And when we are sent global dispatches as a corrective to our solipsism, we respond in a familiar manner: we don’t even look up.

Such was the indifferent response granted Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures upon its limited U.S. release in 2003. An urgent bulletin about life on the planet today, Jia’s masterpiece received a handful of raves, but was largely dismissed as too difficult and inaccessible by most. That reception, and Jia’s continuing obscurity here, speaks to the insecurities that the movie explores. A snapshot of contemporary China, Unknown Pleasures can’t help but cast a sidelong glance at the behemoth halfway around the world. For America is an insistent, inescapable presence in Jia’s China: it is in its televisions, its speakers, its airspace. Most pernicious of all, it has infested that most private of domains: its dreams.

Located in the dusty backwater of Datong, a provincial city in northeast China, the movie depicts a global village in the throes of millennial malaise. Pop songs, music videos, news broadcasts, cartoons, and commercials—the white noise of technology and capitalism—flood its empty spaces. It’s a mindless soundtrack for a city that doesn’t deserve a symphony. One of the movie’s indelible motifs is the sight of viewers huddled together around a television set, eyes glazed over, happily narcotized by the flickering images. That this portrait of cacophonous modernity is set in a remote Chinese outpost is part of the point: even in the farthest reaches of the world, the atmosphere all but crackles with the hum of disposable content.

That unifying, invisible force is a source of both hope and despair. On one hand, Unknown Pleasures offers the possibility of shared human experience, the benevolent work of a media machine that brings the world into every living room and every living room into the world. But that outlook is too sanguine in Jia’s view. His despair is apparent in the movie’s ambiguous title. It evokes the impotent gaze of his dreamers—two friends named Bin Bin (Zhao Wei Wei) and Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong)—who fantasize of a tantalizing getaway that never comes. Their aspirations take the form of stray emblems —a found U.S. dollar, a bathetic music video, a Pulp Fiction DVD—that comprise a mythic view of a promised land, on the same planet surely, but an altogether different world.

Young, unemployed, and apathetic, Bin Bin and Xiao Ji spend their days in pool halls and on street corners, half-heartedly looking for jobs that don’t exist. When they can steal time, Bin Bin and his girlfriend sneak off to a rented room and watch TV. Meanwhile, Xiao Ji follows around a troupe of local performers who perform for Mongolian King Liquor. Dancing and singing on makeshift stages, they draw ogling crowds with their crude numbers. The newest star of the group, Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao), a waiflike, pop idol manqué with a Louise Brooks coif, becomes the object of Xiao Ji’s obsession. In one fabulous cut, Jia moves from their first date at a noodle shop, where Xiao Ji mimics the opening stickup in Pulp Fiction, to a nightclub, where the two do a mean Vincent Vega-Mia Wallace impression.

As their fun and games indicate, the birth of the cool is explicitly traced to American iconography. But while pop culture may be its biggest import, America seems to rear its head elsewhere as well. At home watching TV, Bin Bin absent-mindedly listens to Colin Powell drone on about the Bush administration’s outrage over the Chinese government’s refusal to return a downed U.S. spy plane. Minutes later, an explosion rocks the night, prompting Bin Bin to ask, “Shit! Are the Americans attacking?” A funny poke at America’s trigger-happy reputation, the line works because it’s at once outlandish and not entirely inconceivable—not these days anyway.

The movie is less a frontal assault than an almost subliminal meditation on the American promise. The references are oblique, the critiques murmured. By design, reminders of American preeminence are relegated to the background: a televised image here, a pirated movie there. They will become raw material for the aching subconscious. Wholesale appropriations of American pop idioms offer a more pointed commentary. Watching TV, Bin Bin and his girlfriend sing along to a Chinese music video, which dutifully mimics the tropes and clichés of MTV. In their addiction to distraction and pop, the youth of Jia’s China seem to have internalized the worst the West has to offer and made it their own. Far from banalizing America, the images beamed into their homes have only made it more mysterious. When Xiao Ji’s uncle finds a dollar bill, he can only gape in awe. “Boss, you’re rich!” says a friend. Dazzling and inscrutable, the lowly single cannot sustain such outsized hopes, even as it inspires them.

Richly metaphorical yet bracingly naturalistic, Unknown Pleasures has the immediacy of an early edition headline. Images of WTO meetings and the selection of Beijing as host of the 2008 Olympics flesh out a vision of a China hurtling into the future. Nonetheless, the underlying mood is that of disenfranchisement. It is strange to think of a country of one billion as disempowered, but that is Jia’s perceptive diagnosis. It can’t shake that American shadow, a feeling it shares with the planet. And while the rest of the world can’t take its eyes off it, America can’t be bothered to look beyond itself. Remote and yet meddlesome, mythic yet all too real, it is the locus of incomprehensible contradictions: the wellspring of audacious hopes, and a cold, taunting manifestation of dreams deferred.