The problem with Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang, Walter Salles’ documentary profile of the rightly celebrated Chinese director, comes down to home court advantage. Jia has been making movies about his country’s mutant present and dissolving past for going on two decades, periodically revisiting the dusty post-industrial environs of his home province, Shanxi. Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, On The Road), in turn, has borrowed the on-the-fly director-on-director template of the long-running French TV series Cinema, De Notre Temps (interviews filmed on the street, lengthy clips, zero behind-the-scenes footage, etc.) to make a movie about… well, whatever it is that Jia makes movies about.
To see this kind of thing done well, one would have to look no further than the classic Cinema, De Notre Temps episode A Guy From Fenyang resembles to the point of sometimes coming across like a Documentary Now!-esque parody: “HHH: A Portrait Of Hou Hsiao-Hsien,” by French director Olivier Assayas. Made at a pivotal moment for both filmmakers, Assayas’ profile of Hou, Taiwan’s most revered director, remains revelatory in ways A Guy From Fenyang could never be. Personas could play a role: Hearing Jia talk about dislocation, generational identity, and the erosive power of rapid change (i.e., the go-to themes of his films) isn’t as demystifying as seeing Hou—an aesthete who makes period films and movies that feel like period films despite being set in the present—belt out sweaty, drunken karaoke.
There’s also the matter of a missing critical component. Assayas, who started out as a film critic, brought an edginess to “HHH,” letting Hou do most of the talking, but framing him with hyper-caffeinated, darting handheld camerawork and space-squashing zooms—the opposite of the Taiwanese director’s style. Remaining off-camera, Salles leaves no personal stamp on A Guy From Fenyang. One could argue that it’s a road movie like his best-known films—many of them shot by Eric Gautier, the cinematographer of “HHH”— though only insofar as all documentaries that feature people going to more than one city qualify as road movies.
But here’s what happens in A Guy From Fenyang: Salles, cinematographer Inti Briones (The Loneliest Planet), and their small crew follow Jia—diminutive, soft-spoken, sometimes bashful—on train rides, to meetings with friends and family, and around the small northern city of Fenyang, where he grew up and set his earliest films, as well as the recent Mountains May Depart. They revisit filming locations from less interesting angles and interview actors, including the director’s wife and muse, Zhao Tao. The touchstones of Jia’s 1980s-era youth, including Taiwanese pop music and the Bollywood classic Awaara, are explored, though not as poignantly as in Jia’s own sophomore feature, Platform, which is quoted here in extended clips.
A Guy From Fenyang has a brief “‘HHH’ moment”: A scene in which Jia wonders aloud whatever happened to the workmen he used as unwitting extras for a shot in Platform, only to be told that the man who just unlocked the door for the crew was one of them. For the most part, though, the movie offers a chronological summary of Jia’s career and development as an artist, from his debut feature Xiao Wu through his revenge anthology A Touch Of Sin, interspersed with reminisces about the director’s late father and anecdotes about how who met whom. The problem with art like Jia’s is that a straightforward approach isn’t going to reveal anything that isn’t already there in the work or document anything that the movies don’t already document themselves. And why settle for second-hand when you can just go and watch the real thing?