‘Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue’ Review: China Through Writers’ Eyes

The films of Jia Zhangke, documentary and fictional, zoom in on the granular details of individual lives. At the same time, they are chapters in the single, unimaginably complicated story of China’s transformation in the decades since the 1949 revolution. Jia, who was born in 1970, tends to dwell in the recent past, and to circle back to Shanxi, the part of northern China where he grew up, but he’s also attentive to the continuities of history and geography, the connections between generations and places.

His latest documentary, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue,” is intimate and specific, consisting mainly of interviews with three writers — Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong — associated with Shanxi. They reminisce about their families and careers, and also about their sometimes wrenching, sometimes exhilarating experiences during the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s and ’70s, and later periods of urbanization and capitalist expansion. Colleagues, neighbors and family members, listed as “witnesses” in the end credits, contribute their own anecdotes and insights. The movie is an affecting group portrait and also a complex and subtle piece of literary criticism.

Watching it, I wished I was more familiar with the work of its subjects. Some of it has been translated into English, notably Jia Pingwa’s “Ruined City” and Yu’s “To Live,” which was the basis for Zhang Yimou’s acclaimed 1994 film. But Jia Zhangke’s patient listening and the elegant clarity of the movie’s structure — it advances in roughly chronological order, divided into short sections that explain where it’s going — make it accessible to the curious as well as illuminating to the already knowledgeable.

More than that, “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” demystifies historical episodes that are often presented, at least in the West, as abstractions, and personalizes large-scale events. Politics hovers over the writers’ lives, but their sense of national and regional history is filtered through work, family and landscape. Jia Pingwa recalls the hardship that his father, a teacher, suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Yu talks about his career transition from dentist to novelist. Liang delves into painful recollections of her mother’s illness and her sister’s marriage. Between the lines of their conversations with the unseen director you can intuit the elusive larger story — about the evolution of a poor, rural corner of an emerging global superpower — that is both his subject and theirs.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue
Not rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. In theaters.

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