Film Review: “Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue” — Existing as a Writer in China Today

By Maxwell Olin Massa

For those with sufficient patience and imagination — and eager to learn more about the Chinese literary scene than what’s found in journalistic headlines — Jia Zhangke’s documentary will be an uncommon treat. 

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, directed by Jia Zhangke.

A scene from Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is a rewarding but demanding documentary, particularly for anyone who does not come to it with prior understanding of China and its literary turf. Directed by Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯), the film assumes considerable knowledge of China’s cultural scene. So for those who have the necessary background knowledge — or those curious enough to learn about it — this will be an illuminating experience, a perceptive look into what it is like to exist as a writer in China today.

The focus is on interviewing authors who have lived in, and written about, China after the period of violent revolution in the ’40s. Jia picked a quartet of writers from all those who came to the director’s hometown of Fenyang (汾阳) in Shanxi province to attend a literary festival in May 2019: Ma Feng (马烽), deceased by the time of the gathering and represented by his daughter, Jia Pingwa (贾平凹), Yu Hua (余华), and Liang Hong (梁鸿).

Jia’s most straightforward message, which was probably not uppermost in his mind, is that his chronological presentation of the writers suggests how China has changed over the decades: Ma Feng (b. 1922) began his writing career during the Second World War, known in China as the War of Resistance Against Japan. He lived in a succession of underdeveloped, poverty-stricken villages after the proclamation of the people’s independence in 1949. Jia Pingwa (b. 1952) struggled with the stigma of having a father who was unfairly labeled a Nationalist agent during the Cultural Revolution. He found it difficult to find work. Yu Hua (b. 1960), who flowered late, served as an involuntary dentist in the early ’80s. He turned to writing during the era of reform, partly because he desperately hated his job. Dr. Liang Hong (b. 1973), the final author of the lot, is a professional woman with a terminal degree from the prestigious Renmin University. She has also served as a visiting scholar at Duke University. Jia obviously intended to show the gradual development of China — from a post-conflict, subsistence economy to its status as a modern financial giant.

A subtler point made by the film is that Jia is more interested in the authors’ lives than their literary work. He does not ask about his subjects’ views on literature or art. Instead, the director concentrates on what these self-conscious people have to say about the lives they have lived. In China and elsewhere, writers are sometimes treated as a breed apart — it is refreshing to hear from these celebrated authors about pivotal experiences that all of us deal with in one way or another: Yu Hua tells a funny story about the first time someone passed him a note in school, which turned out to be a dressing down from another classmate. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue gives us writers reflecting on their lives in a way that shows us how highly sensitive people grapple with the everyday.

That emphasis on the everyday might be misunderstood by many, some of whom might have wanted more explicitly political point-scoring. I found this decision to hew deeply to the prosaic to be poignant and revealing. Long sections of the film feature lingering takes of people engaging in activities that generally (though not always) seem to lack significance, symbolic or otherwise. But, by dwelling on how these writers go through their quotidian routines, the director invites us to see the world as they do. This is powerfully shown when Jia Pingwa hangs up a piece of calligraphy he has just finished, on which is written 白眼观世 (translated in the subtitles as “cast a cold eye on the world”). The camera then cuts to a montage of street scenes from Xi’an; this dilatory look at the community invites us to bring to the images the same kind of absorbed attention demanded by the creative and analytic minds we have been hearing from. The challenge for an artist, Jia suggests, is to stare at something that appears to have nothing of interest, yet to discover something of value and meaning. To me, this approach elevates Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue above the level of your standard documentary.

Be warned: this is a film for those who are fascinated by the artistic temperament. Others will find it slow-moving and mired in minutiae. But for those with sufficient patience and imagination — and eager to learn more about the Chinese literary scene than what’s found in journalistic headlines — Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue will be an uncommon treat.

Maxwell Olin Massa is a graduate of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and currently works as a policy analyst in the DC area. In addition to having written on the rule of law, he is also a staff writer for Third Factor magazine and published House of Apollo, a novel of ideas, with Whiskey Tit Books in 2020. He was even a Chinese TV host for a year, once upon a time.

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