Screenplay: Jia Zhang-ke
Photography: Yu Likwai, Jia Zhang-ke
Editor: Zhang Jia
Music: Lim Giong
In Mandarin with English subtitles
With: Ma Ke
Festivals: Venice, Toronto, New York 2007
The great Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke (Platform, The World, Still Life) returns with an impressionistic documentary on China's (and, by implication, the world's) garment industry. Its structure is loose and associative, moving from the massive manufacturers in South China to the work of emerging Chinese fashion designer Ma Ke, whose Wu Yong (‘Useless') label is making a splash in Paris, to the plight of village tailors and seamstresses. Although there's no overarching narration, and no conventional structure, Jia manages to paint a comprehensive portrait of the clothing industry in its many manifestations: weavers, designers, machinists, dressmakers, fashion shows, retailers, consumers.
Ma Ke is at the centre of the film, and holds the other panels of the triptych in place, both physically (her brand or person are used to segue out of the manufacturing section and into the village craft one) and conceptually, with her probing of the ethics and aesthetics of handmade and industrially manufactured clothing. Her old line, Exception, embodies the latter, and her garments are among those being worked on by row upon row of machinists in China's garment factories; Wu Yong, on the other hand, is entirely handmade, and every garment is unique, even to the extent of being buried in earth to allow Mother Nature to randomise the creative process. The atmospheric presentation of these works in Paris is one of the film's highlights. The final section, set in the remote mining town of Fenyang, may be the most revealing, as Jia slyly gives local expression to global issues: even China's tailors, it seems, are being forced out of business by cheap, mass-produced Chinese clothing, and some find themselves obliged to give up their craft and enter the coalmines.
Useless is as beautifully, placidly paced as Jia's feature work and just as gorgeous to look at. His regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai proves to be one of the great poets of the digital camera, wresting exquisite effects from natural light - the intimate aura of paper-covered light-boxes or the burnished glow of a coalminers' group shower.