Jia Zhang-ke’s love letter to the creative spirit that has emerged from his hometown of Fenyang in Shanxi Province is an in-depth examination of the lives of three different generations of writers, all of whom have been inspired by the countryside and rural life of the area. Split into eighteen, loosely connected ‘chapters’ (with titles such as “Love” and “Mother”), Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue delves into the lives of acclaimed Chinese writers Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong — examining not only the area that they came from, but also the changing attitudes across the decades, with the film spanning from the early 1920s to the present day.
The opening chapter — “Eating” — focuses on the Jia Family Village, a small town that had been written off as a place unable to sustain itself until the residents discovered a process for riding the soil of its high salt levels, quickly turning their production of grain into one of the most successful in the country. This extended chapter suggests that the narrative will be concentrated on the story of a village and its people, before then taking a turn towards the literary stars that have emerged out of it.
In its dispensing with a linear narrative, Swimming Out… lacks focus — feeling more like a potted oral history that you’d hear from a group of older relatives late one evening, with everyone sporadically chipping in with their own memories and tangentially related stories. Such an approach may have worked in a slightly more familial narrative, but here it’s disjointed and oddly dissatisfying. It feels too romanticized a return to the pastoral aspects of classical literature: the idealization of the countryside and those who live in it as natural, untouched by urban life. The countryside becomes a place to be inspired, to be at one with the land; various people stand in fields, or by rivers, to recite various works by each of the authors throughout the narrative, and in doing so effectively ignores the instability and hard work that is associated with rural living.
That’s not to say the film is without interesting moments of humor and heartbreak. The casually funny Yu Hua recounts his time in Berlin with a gleeful and mischievous smile that is hard not to ignore, while Liang Hong’s tale of her own struggles with her mother’s long-term illness and death are incredibly moving. Recounting both her, her elder sister’s and her father’s difficult relationships with each other that developed after her mother’s passing, the pain and emotion are palpably clear — often telling Jia and his camera that “I can’t talk about this.”
Such moments of hard-hitting introspection and sentimentality ensure that Jia’s latest documentary has some interesting worth, but the lack of narrative focus makes it difficult to maintain interest or to make any semblance of connection to the stories being told. You’re left, sadly, having felt every second of its 112-minute runtime.