Sympathy For the Devil
e was hot in the early 1990s,” says someone of Jia Hongsheng, tarnished star and subject of Quitting. A study in alienation and addiction, Zhang Yang’s fractured film is Sixth Generation Chinese cinema through and through—addled, urban and formally daring. Set in Beijing during the 1990s, Quitting charts an actor’s spiral into drugs and oblivion. Zhang’s movie is unremitting in its depiction. As arduous as the experience it documents, you can say Quitting is all too successful in representing Jia’s bleak descent.
On paper, Zhang’s film sounds like a conceptual coup. Part pomo lark, part Behind the Music, Qutting offers us a dismal biopic of a celebrity whose career and life fell apart as he got increasingly hooked on heroin. The central conceit is that the celebrity plays himself. Jia, a film star who gained fame in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s playing gangsters and heroes in a spate of B-movies, gets a chance to recreate the darkest moment of his young life. Perverse as that sounds, the opportunity really is an actor’s dream: role-of-a-lifetime gig and therapeutic session in one fell swoop.
It’s not just Jia who wallows in the memories. Zhang has also employed Jia’s family and friends to reenact his life story, a natural enough move for a film concerned about questions of identity and authenticity. Courageous if not masochistic, the decision by the principals to play themselves certainly gives this calculatedly layered movie another sheen of subtext. The parade of dysfunctional squabbles can get shrill and numbing, but there’s no denying the voyeuristic frisson that Zhang’s unusual casting decision adds.
The narrative opens in 1995, with Jia already far gone and out. Jia’s parents, members of a theater troupe in a small town in Northeast China, pick up stakes and move to Beijing to be with their suffering son. Living with his sister in an anonymous high-rise, Jia has retreated into a depressive state of dementia. Zhang’s first shots of Jia’s room show his closed door, a poster of Travis Bickle predominantly displayed—canny if predictable pop cultural shorthand for anomie and psychosis.
The bulk of Quitting is made up of Jia’s parents efforts to snap their son out of his spell. Increasingly hostile and uncaring, Jia heaps all manner of abuse on his family, even as he greedily accepts their offers of money and food. Jia is portrayed as an urbanite boho afflicted with a crisis of identity. At one point, he begins to think himself the lost son of John Lennon. Following a violent outburst against his father, Jia is finally sent to a mental institution, whose inmates are all played by actual patients. The movie ends with Jia’s release. As in Taxi Driver, the ending is ambiguous: Has Jia returned to normalcy? Or is another outbreak of violence and torment in the offing?
Its indefinite resolution isn’t the only signal that the movie seeks to pose more questions than answers. The elusiveness is also embodied in the movie’s kaleidoscopic form. Quitting shuttles back and forth through time to fill in the details of its story. In its fragmented structure, the movie seeks to mimic the slippery permutations of memory. Eschewing a linear approach, Zhang also denies the audience an objective foothold, shifting the movie’s point-of-view around. A mélange of forms, Quitting incorporates interviews, footage from Jia’s movies, and shots of rehearsals of the stage version.
The prismatic scrutiny notwithstanding, the movie never does quite get into the head of its protagonist. Then again, perhaps that’s the point. Irritating as his search for realness may be, Jia may yet be getting at something essential about the nature of acting. Swearing off films, Jia asks his friend if he wants to start a band: “Music is so much more real than acting,” he says. Can something so slippery as identity be rendered accurately and completely by movies? Zhang offers us a plethora of entry points into Jia’s life, but it’s hard to say we ever get to know him.
Perhaps as a caveat on the limitations of the medium, the movie never lets us forget that what we are seeing is a representation. Then again, perhaps it’s a cop-out on Zhang’s part. In its multilayered approach to narrative, Quitting recalls Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Good Men, Good Women. Formally adventurous though it is, Zhang’s film isn’t entirely successful. Less sophisticated and refined than Hou (then again, you can say that of just about everyone), Zhang has created a movie that’s not a little phony. Quitting doesn’t so much plumb the depths as strain for effects—Zhang’s aestheticized approach gives the lie to his purported interrogation of cinematic truth.
It may be Jia’s life on display, but it’s a deeper malaise that the movie gets at. Covering the same thematic ground as some of its contemporaries, Quitting portrays a China undergoing social upheaval. Zhang has said he found Jia’s trials emblematic of the modern Chinese experience. But the portrait that emerges here is less resonant than tiresome. Unlike Platform, Jia Zhang-ke’s dramatization of China’s disoriented lurch into Westernization (and incidentally the best film I saw in 2001), Quitting isn’t interested in political critique. Listening glumly to the Beatles’ “Let It Be” (or “Take It Naturally” as the subtitles tell us), Jia comes across as an intolerable brat. If Zhang finds something compelling in Jia’s tortured navel-gazing, it certainly doesn’t come across.
Not to say that Quitting is devoid of poignancy. The sadistic Jia’s mistreatment of his parents is almost unbearable to watch, particularly since they coddle him for most of the movie. You may want the father to give his twenty-something baby a good shaking, but one of the themes that emerges is the relentless tug of the parental instinct—Jia’s parents can’t help but be there, painful and useless though it may seem. Old Jia’s convoluted attempts to find an album by “Da Bidus” for his son is not just a comical interlude, but also a moving expression of filial devotion.
Devotees of Chinese cinema need not be told that Jia’s tale ends happily—up to this point at least. Jia appeared in 2000’s Suzhou River, another urban tale about alienation and obsession more preoccupied with its postmodern flourishes than the people in it. Quitting might have been just what the doctor ordered for the recovering Jia, but the catharsis never spills over into the audience. “I got tired of being with him,” says one of Jia’s ex-roomies at one point. You may find yourself saying the same thing of this frustrating movie.