"The songs, the songs, the bloody, bloody songs..." So said British screenwriter Dennis Potter in his tough-edged nostalgia series The Singing Detective. And maybe we hold on to them because we identify and attach so many feelings to those dumb pop tunes: our childhood, relationships, break-ups, high school boredom, etc. The poverty stricken, disaffected teenagers of Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures wind up using songs to express desires and dreams so buried they don't even know where it's coming from. But continually, Jia's camera lingers on glazed young faces (set against backdrops of urban decay) as they softly sing to themselves. Music is the thing that brings us all together, and to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick, a truck driver can empathize with a Beatles tune as surely as a Harvard scholar. It has the ability to connect with everyone, and perhaps international audiences will connect with the Chinese youth of Unknown Pleasures for the exact same reason.
Unemployed boys go girl crazy in Unknown Pleasures, and one of them, Xiao Ji (Wu Qiong) falls hard for a singer (Zhao Tao) and sometime prostitute. She's unique in that she sells herself and her body, while at the same time promoting Mongolian King liquor for her money grubbing boyfriend. That's the almost cutesy story, told in lingering wide shots and photographed for maximum naturalism on digital video. The video actually serves to undercut whatever sentimentality might be there in the awkward gazes between girls and boys... the tone of the picture is hard documentary realism, the length of the takes emphasizes the discomfort of real time.
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