Caught by the Tides review – two-decade relationship tells story of China’s epic transformation

As so often in the past, Chinese film-maker Jia Zhangke swims down into an ocean of sadness and strangeness; his new film is a mysterious quest narrative with a dynamic, westernised musical score. It tells a human story of a failed romance spanning 20 years, and brings this into parallel with a larger panorama: the awe-inspiring scale of millennial change that has transformed China in the same period, a futurist fervour for quasi-capitalist innovation that has turned out to co-exist with some very old-fashioned state coercion.

Caught by the Tides reflects with a kind of numb astonishment at all the novelties that the country has been required to welcome, all the vast upheavals for which the people have had to make sacrifices. The film shows us the mobster-businessmen who have done well in modern China, the patriotic ecstasy of Beijing getting picked to host the 2008 Olympic Games, the creation of the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam which meant so much unacknowledged pain for the displaced communities. (This latter was the subject of Jia’s Venice Golden Lion winner Still Life in 2006.) And finally of course there is the misery of the Covid lockdown.

The film once again features the director’s longtime female lead and wife Zhao Tao; she plays Qiao, a young woman in the northern city of Datong. With the turn of the new century, she is trying to make a living as a dancer and singer at promotional events as well as a new music venue, bought and renovated by a local entrepreneur who with showy patriotism has rescued a Mao portrait from the bins outside and placed it in pride of place in the central hall. It is through this place that Qiao comes into contact with Bin (Li Zhubin, another of the director’s repertory players) who is a cynical music promoter. Qiao is soon in a miserably oppressive relationship with this man, culminating in physical abuse on a bus. And then he simply texts her to say he is leaving Datong to try his luck elsewhere and, in the far off province where he makes his home, Bin soon becomes involved with a crooked land and property dealer, whose business is dependent on a corrupt politician who is preparing to skip town taking a lot of public money with her.

Qiao sends letters and texts but Bin doesn’t reply, so she sets out on an epic journey, involving a long (and spectacular) trip up the Yangtze River to track him down, armed with a taser to attack possible assailants. A gang actually tries something on Qiao in a remote town, deliberately leaving an unattended envelope of cash on an empty mah-jong table to tempt Qiao to take it; she doesn’t, but they accuse her of doing so anyway, clearly calculating that innocent people, having noticed the envelope, will think their anger justified and give some money to appease them. It’s a horribly apposite symbol for China’s new market forces of predation and bad faith.

And what does Qiao want? Does she want to get back together with Bin? Surely not. One of the film’s cumulative effects is the realisation that we have never seen them kiss, never seen them be romantic or tender together in any way. But she wants closure, of a sort’; she wants a confrontation with her past, wants to cancel the wrongs done to her which she perhaps senses are part of the larger wrongs of history. China appears to be full of people angrily trying to make a reckoning with the past in various ways. And when the ageing Qiao and Bin are re-united … well, it is not a David Lean moment, exactly, but there is a kind of epic power in it. This is another deeply felt film from Jia Zhangke, with a very contemporary artistry.


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