Chinese actress Zhao Tao and Chinese actor Zhubin Li sit and stand in "Caught by the Tides."

‘Caught By the Tides’ dramatizes a changing China through two decades of footage

The Cannes Film Festival plays host to the ultimate Jia Zhangke film

From left, Zhao Tao and Zhubin Li in "Caught by the Tides."

Courtesy of X Stream Pictures

Few directors have so deftly captured the changing face of 21st Century China as Jia Zhangke. His latest, the sprawling dramatic mood piece Feng Liu Yi Dai (“A Drifting Generation”), or Caught by the Tides, is arguably his magnum opus. Not only does it revisit themes, locations, and even footage from his previous works—to mellifluous and moving effect—but it also features a career-defining performance from Zhao Tao, Jia's long-time collaborator, and real-life spouse.

The director's sixth feature to play in competition at Cannes, Caught by the Tides begins in 2001, in the northeastern coal mining town of Datong, a place that has seen both industrial growth and high levels of pollution (the fallout of progress has long been a concern in Jia’s movies). Through gentle, documentarian footage shot at the turn of the century, of local middle-aged women singing songs and making merry, the film introduces us to the fabric and community of Datong, which serve as a key backdrop for the love story of Qiao (Zhao), a mute bar dancer and singer, and her manager Bin (Li Zhubin). When Bin suddenly moves away in search of new opportunities, his absence leaves Qiao adrift, but as the years go by, she eventually sets out on a quest to find him, and in the process, guides us on a tour of a rapidly evolving nation, including the town of Fengjie, whose residents are slowly displaced by a hydroelectric dam project.

Notably, Datong was also the setting for Jia's 2018 crime drama Ash is Purest White, the perfect companion piece to Caught by the Tides, given the two films' similarities. In the former, Zhao played a different character named Qiao, who was the girlfriend of a Datong mob boss, who was also named Bin (played by actor Liao Fan). The pair’s long separation sends Zhao on a similar journey across a shifting urban landscape, often by a river ferry, from whose deck she observes the passage of time.

Such images appear in Caught by the Tides—or reappear, as some of those scenes are re-purposed—and in the process, Jia finds himself on the deck as well, observing portraits of a changing China through the lens of his own work. To build his retrospective, he pulls footage from as many as 10 of his previous movies, and in the process, crafts a post-hoc project in the vein of Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which tracked the life of one Texan boy and his parents by shooting with the same actors over a 12-year span. As it happens, Caught by the Tides is the second film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (alongside Lou Ye’s COVID docufiction An Unfinished Film) in which old footage is repurposed by a Chinese filmmaker belonging to the country’s “Sixth Generation”—an underground, naturalistic film movement which grew out of increased state censorship in the 1990s. While not widespread enough to be a trend, this recurrence marks a desire to closely observe the past in order to better understand the present—and the future.

Chinese actress Zhao Tao in a black jacket, places her hand on the head of a robot in "Caught by the Tides."

Zhao Tao in "Caught by the Tides."

Courtesy of X Stream Pictures

Jia's backward gaze, towards his previous movies, never feels incongruous with the way Caught by the Tides hops forward through time. While he only conceived of the project during COVID—China's lockdowns were, in fact, a reason old footage was preferable to shooting new scenes—a poetic cross-pollination already existed among many of his older films, through the repetition of names and locations. Zhou and Li appear as struggling romantic partners in several of them, like the Datong-set Unknown Pleasures (2002), in which Li's unrelated character is also named Bin, and the Fengjie-set Still Life (2006), in which Zhao plays yet another woman named Qiao. (She has also, in several of these films, sported an identical fringe cut or wig).

The connections between these works aren't so much logistical details as they are mythic reverberations, with familiar kinds of characters and archetypes traversing an uncertain world, as Jia’s drama mirrors the personal and societal metamorphoses on display. He has always told stories about the way people are shaped by forces larger than themselves, and the fact that he was able to create an essayistic career-flashback as broad (and as breathtaking) as Caught by the Tides feels like the result of some ethereal guiding hand, as though it were the inevitable outcome for two decades of looking at the world through a lens of longing.

Chinese actress Zhao Tao dressed in yellow, stands at a counter with a plate of food in her hands, in "Caught by the Tides."

Zhao Tao plays Qiao in "Caught by the Tides."

Courtesy of X Stream Pictures

As the years go by, Qiao chases a version of Bin who becomes increasingly like a phantom, leaving her a trail of text messages, as the influence of technology on daily life evolves in real-time. This and other societal evolutions, like music, fashion, and even the digital textures of the cameras Jia has used over the years, become noticeable parts of the story too; the recurrence of Swedish group’s globally popular 1998 bubblegum dance hit “Butterfly” hits like a whiff of nostalgia, but also hints at a China whose cultural and economic doors are slowly being opened to foreign influence.

The movie’s elliptical, non-linear editing and languid stretches of landscapes demand reflection on Chinese industrialization as much as they demand self-reflection, on the lives lived and the changes observed (and felt) by anyone in the audience. All the while, Zhao remains our evocative anchor as Qiao, both the individual protagonist of Caught by the Tides, and a conceptual muse who has long embodied Jia's notions of enormous social transformation, and the intimate ways they trickle down into individual lives. Both in the reused footage, as well as in a handful of newly shot scenes—in which the actors have noticeably aged—Zhao delivers a spellbinding silent performance that wrestles constantly between a black hole of uncertainty, and determination to claw her way out of that abyss, lest she be swallowed whole by loneliness and the changing tides.

Caught by the Tides is pending U.S. distribution.

Published on May 27, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter