Useless Jia Zhangke

Useless Jia Zhangke
China’s avatar of globalised menace hits documentary pay dirt in this oddly constructed but sharply argued portrait of an industry in denial.

The ostensible subject is Exception, a Chinese clothing company with a high-flown mission statement and an impressive roster of designs — not only is it flying in the face of the Prada/Vuitton/Lacoste-dominated landscape but it’s specifically designed to revive the artisanal methods being lost in the shuffle of mass-produced disposability. The outfits themselves are unwieldy but gorgeously austere, unlikely to make it as prêt-à-porter but a monument to uncompromising designer Ma Ke and her willingness to swim against the current.

Still, the power of the enterprise is in question: the firm’s Paris show, for a new brand defiantly named "Useless,” is filmed in such an ominous fashion that it’s hard to tell if it’s grooving with Ma’s vision, ironically subverting its pretensions or chafing at the song and dance required for the marketing of anti-market goods.

Jia is also careful to first establish the workers, who are the backbone of the Chinese garment industry, contextualising Ma’s statements with the people who are on the front lines of the phenomenon that she’s desperately trying to oppose. The result is an unusually aesthetic documentary experience. One barely notices the talking head over the dingy prison of factories and the serene environment of the designer’s studio — even her statements get swallowed up by the presences around her.

Those are the environments in which she must work and live, and the film is superb at evoking her marginalised place in such a universe without either demeaning her work or giving her the last word, which can never be hers. (Xstream)