Chinese director Jia Zhangke turns lens on nation's smoggy skies

Seven-minute, dialogue-free film made for Greenpeace captures China's air pollution problem

Chinese director Jia Zhangke, a bête noir of censors whose socially conscious films have tackled issues of modernization, globalization, violence and alienated youth, has now turned his lens, briefly, on the country’s air pollution problem.

In “Smog Journeys,” a seven-minute, dialogue-free film made for Greenpeace, Jia captures, in rather ethereal style, farmers coughing in fields while smokestacks belch behind them; children playing soccer in face masks; young parents rushing babies to hospitals and administering inhalers; and urban commuters navigating their motorbikes through a miasma of gray haze.

The fictional short has the quality of a dream-like documentary, loosely following two families of different social class -- a white-collar family in the Chinese capital and a miner family from Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing. According to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, many of the cities with the country’s worst air pollution are in Hebei, which is heavily industrialized.

In a question-and-answer session released by the environmental group along with the film, Jia said the film is “meant to point out that no one gets to be different when it comes to smog; no matter what jobs we do, it is still a problem we all face.”

Jia’s previous full-length film, “A Touch of Sin,” was a ripped-from-the headlines look at violence in Chinese society. Winner of the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival, it was never allowed to be shown in Chinese theaters.

In “Smog Journeys,” which can be seen in China on the online video site Youku, Jia refrains from asking viewers -- or the government -- to take any specific action; the film ends with a simple statement saying, “Clean air doesn’t come to those who wait.”

 “I wanted to raise the society’s environmental awareness through this, get people’s attention on the smog issue, and find ways to solve it,” Jia said.

But Yan Li, head of climate and energy at Greenpeace East Asia, said in a statement introducing the film that “bringing back clean air needs to be a priority and it requires urgent action. Greenpeace calls on the government to take immediate steps to safeguard the health of its citizens, cut coal and shift toward cleaner renewable energy.”  

Jia is not the only Chinese film director to express his concern about the environment recently. Feng Xiaogang ended his comedic 2013 film “Personal Tailor” on a relatively serious note, with some of the main characters superimposed against the backdrop of a toxic wasteland and apologizing to the environment for the intense pollution.  

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