‘Caught by the Tides’ Review: Jia Zhangke Stands Up for China but Watches Things Fall Apart

Chinese director Jia Zhangke put a note on a title card at the end of his film “Caught by the Tides,” which screened in the Main Competition of the 2024 Cannes Film Festival on Saturday: “Just standing up for the land of my birth.” But there’s no just in this film, or for that matter in any of his work. “Caught by the Tides” is an examination of the director’s homeland, to be sure, but it’s far more evasive and challenging than mere tribute.

A portrait of modern China that manages to be both grounded in reality and sparked by illusion, “Caught by the Tides” is also an impressionistic, nonlinear work that mixes fiction and nonfiction; it’s as easy to lose your bearings in Zhangke’s wash of images as it is to get lost Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis.”

This isn’t unusual territory for Zhangke, who embraced both experimental storytelling and Chinese life and culture for his entire career. “Caught by the Tides” throws down a challenge from its very first scene, in which a man stands in a field, a wrench in his hand and a motorcycle lying by his side, and watches a blazing fire. A heavy metal song smashes in, its singer yelling, “Not even a wildfire can burn all the weeds.”

And from there, Zhangke slashes through the weeds of China in the 21st century, using footage he’s shot over the last two decades plus. There’s occasionally a plot of sorts, and even a romance, but only to a degree. In a way, the film takes its cue from scenes of a lone woman (Zhangke’s wife, Qiao Qiao) who wanders through the movie, seldom commenting but taking it all in with a gaze rich with sadness.

We see work sites, massage parlors and a dump of a place that sports the title “Workers Cultural Palace.” There are chaotic nightclub scenes and joyous celebrations when Bejing is named host city of the Olympic Games. There are robots taken to dropping quotes from Mother Teresa and Mark Twain, and lots of singers: The movie is rich in music, including an acoustic lament from a man who sings about how he’s gone to the bar every night for 30 years, and will continue “until it all comes down.”

In a way, “until it all comes down” is a central theme of the film. The first section is set largely in Central China in 2001, in the time leading up to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which destroyed about 1,500 cities, towns and villages when it was built and filled in the early 2000s. These scenes are filled with destruction – buildings being torn down, rubble left behind, people leaving – and with the ominous aura of greater destruction to come.

An hour or so in, the film shifts to Southern China and jumps ahead by two decades to 2022. But again, it’s a time when danger hangs in the air – China during the pandemic, with men and women dancing around a ballroom in masks while a workman weaves between them spraying disinfectant.

Throughout the film, a sense of chaos and disintegration suffuses the striking images. Zhangke may be standing up for China, but he’s also watching things fall apart. The chief emotion on the faces of his subjects is often as not sadness, a point underlined a late-model robot explains that the difference between it and humans is that it can’t get sad.

“Caught by the Tides” is an elegy of sorts, at times angry and abrasive but more often gentle and reflective. It’s not easy and it’s definitely not commercial, leaving it up to the viewer to find threads and bask in the mood rather than grasping for things like plot. That can be frustrating, but also rewarding if you can relax into Zhangke’s rhythms. And despite the sense that things are falling apart, the film also finds moments of coming together. You could call it a movie about connection, but one fashioned out of shots of isolation.

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