Published Dec 01, 2002Director Jia Zhang-ke (Platform) may not be a household name, but he's a critical darling, and he ranks up there with the best Asian filmmakers right now. There's a very loyal subculture of cineastes who follow the work of directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Shinji Aoyama all makers of profoundly humanistic films that deal with the globalised world for what it is, alienating, emotionally stifling, full of tantalising promise that can never be realised. Unknown Pleasures is very much in this tradition, a meandering story of two post-high school slackers who seem beaten down by unseen forces. They're jaded and disappointed before they even try anything. Xiao Ji and Bin Bin live just on the periphery of a life of crime. They try to get semi-legitimate jobs with a theatrical group that is actually just a travelling advertisement for "Mongolian King Liquor," but it doesn't pan out, and Xiao Ji ends up falling for one of the dancers, Qiau Qiau, who also just happens to have a low-level gangster boyfriend. Bin Bin is forced by his mother to join the army, but even that fails, when the physical reveals that he has hepatitis. All around them are signs that China should be prospering the announcement of a new highway, the Beijing Olympics but all evidence is to the contrary. The town they live in is all deserted streets, littered with rubble and crumbling buildings. The only news that genuinely alters their lives is more immediate and tragic a car accident, an explosion at a textile mill. The storytelling occurs on an almost subliminal level, with an accumulation of mood and detail. The camera stays at a distance and observes, eschewing big emotional payoffs, but patiently constructing something deeper and more resonant. In the end, Xiao Ji and Bin Bin are unknowing victims of global capitalism, sucked into a half-hearted attempt at crime that fails not with a bang but a whimper.