‘Caught by the Tides’ Review: Jia Zhangke Weaves a Shimmering New Tapestry from Threads of His Previous Films

The Chinese title of Jia Zhangke’s mesmerizing “Caught by the Tides,” a masterfully poetic and pioneering fusion of the old and the new, can be translated in several ways. Jia himself suggests “The Drifting Generation,” but it can also mean “The Romantic Generation” with the etymology of “romantic” lying in the Chinese words for wind and current. The restless motion of the natural world is certainly captured in the English title’s reference to an ocean’s ebb and flow. But what that version cannot adequately convey is the airiness and the yearning that Jia whips in to “Caught by the Tides” — quite miraculously considering he is largely working with repurposed footage from across the last 23 years of his justly celebrated career.

Loosely speaking a love story, “Tides” is also perhaps the most definitive national portrait that Jia, modern China’s foremost cinematic chronicler, has ever delivered. This is what it might look like if the eye of the storm of 21st century China’s many transformations could tell us what it saw … or could sing us, perhaps. For the most part, Jia’s new-old film features little sync dialogue and unfolds as a flowing series of extended montages with a musicality that is a splendid testament to the work of its three editors, Yang Chao, Lin Xudong and Matthieu Laclau — not to mention the use of actual music. Jia’s trademark fondness for the unexpected soundtrack cut finds its zenith here, as rave music, rock music, pop and dance anthems counterpoint the sometimes grim visuals, adding a splash of color to gray landscapes, like discarded bubblegum gritted into tarmac.

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And so it is appropriate that “Caught by the Tides” begins with singing. In low-grade digital video, a group of women huddled against the cold around a stove celebrate Women’s Day with a good-natured sing-off. One by one they are cajoled into participating, their unexpectedly lovely, untrained voices elevating the dingy surroundings. This documentary intro (Jia has worked in fiction, non-fiction and hybrid forms across his career) may at first seem unrelated to the larger narrative, except in placing us in Datong, where many of his films are set, around the year 2001. But actually right here already exist many of his macro themes, in the love songs, folk songs and sentimental ballads of popular patriotism that the women choose. “Tides” will be very much about women — or at least a woman — facing down the romance and the struggle of life in beloved, difficult China.

The woman is Qiao Qiao, played by Jia’s wife Zhao Tao, whose pivotal position within Jia’s canon requires we find a word less passive than “muse” and less antiseptic than “collaborator.” Using sequences from “Unknown Pleasures” (2002), their first movie together, Qiao Qiao is introduced to us radiant with youth, coquettishly responding to the wolf-whistles of local guys in her neighborhood. She falls in love with Bin, played by Li Zhubin who co-starred along with Zhao in “Unknown Pleasures,” “Still Life” (2006) and “A Touch of Sin” (2013). But in a motif that repeats itself across Jia’s filmography, especially in the bookends of “Unknown Pleasures” and “Ash is Purest White” (2018), the young man leaves Datong and his lovelorn girlfriend behind to find his fortune. Qiao Qiao spends many years looking for him, before a reunion in midlife will force her to the melancholic conclusion that the person she has become during her search has outgrown its object in almost every conceivable way.

Jia’s films are not overtly feminist, but his admiration for the survivorship of women is an ongoing feature. And Qiao Qiao, who here is not technically mute but hardly ever speaks, is a survivor: across the films Jia samples she has survived not only bad boyfriends, economic privation, massive social upheaval, crime, violence and imprisonment, but also the many changes in mood and genre that his work encompasses. It means that “Caught by the Tides,” despite its seemingly quixotic ambition to forge a new (albeit slender) narrative out of manifold story and character strands, can emerge as a powerfully coherent portrait of a single woman, from youth to middle age, even though only a few sections were specifically shot for this film, among them the final part, when Qiao Qiao returns to Datong in 2023. It brings the social commentary right up to date with witty vignettes detailing a toothless local eccentric’s 1.2 million-strong social media following and Qiao Qiao’s oddly charming encounters with a courteous supermarket robot.

Jia’s risky experiment is so uncannily successful that it is possible to come away from “Tides” with the whimsical impression that this was the film he was building toward all this time, as though all those lauded previous movies were simply him amassing the raw material for this one. Because the form of “Tides,” which is indivisible from its themes and from the lingering effect of its gorgeously looping internal structure, is impossible to ignore but also less than crucial to understand in minute detail. The Jia devotee may wish to parse each scene for its provenance, and in the unfakeably authentic aging process of the actors, or their costumes, or the aspect ratio or stock quality, they will find enough evidence to be able to place much of the film back into its prior context. But “Tides” exerts its own inexorable pull, and as a mid-career moment of transcendence for Jia it feels less like a gracenote than an act of liberation. The Chinese title of “Unknown Pleasures” translates to “free from constraints,” and after this majestic work of melancholic retrospection, Jia seems free indeed, to turn toward the future as the winds settle and the tide recedes, and the beach looks like a stretch of limitless unsullied possibility.

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