So much “Useless” beauty

Pub date June 4, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Perhaps cinema is useless. Jia Zhangke entertains this idea — as a subtext — in his 2007 documentary Useless.

As the waves of raves for Jia have rolled in, I’ve felt a bit detached. In the case of Useless, however, I responded immediately to Jia’s vision. By focusing on clothing and to some extent fashion, he takes on subjects I find inherently filmic. (I’ll watch documentaries about Yves Saint-Laurent, Yohji Yamamoto, and yes, I’m a Project Runway devotee). More important, he appears to be outside his comfort zone. The friction that results, and the deep ambiguity and ambivalence at the heart of Jia’s movie, reward repeat viewings.

Useless takes its title partly from a clothing label of that name started by designer Ma Ke, who is profiled in the second of the film’s three sections. After she muses on the "shame" of China being associated with mass-produced cheap goods, Jia films the unveiling of her debut collection for Paris Fashion Week, where at least one older European model is nonplussed by the weight of the clothing, which has been dug up from the ground after a period of burial.

The potential meaning of such moments ricochets silently — yet far from painlessly off the gorgeous gliding images of employees at work in a clothing factory in the beginning of the film, and a somewhat dramatized portrait of an obsolete tailor shop in Jia’s hometown of Fengyang at the close. Some reviews have faulted Useless for not relying on literal touches such as intertitles or voice-overs. But when Ma Ke’s deluxe car heedlessly speeds by a tailor on foot, Jia doesn’t need words to make a point. He isn’t out to damn Ma Ke — my guess is that the filmmaker in him identifies with her.


Thurs/5 and Sun/8, call for times

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2700