Jia Zhangke’s (贾樟柯 / 賈樟柯) latest lamentation on contemporary China is Smog Journeys, a short film made for environmental activist group Greenpeace East Asia about the country’s notorious air pollution problem. Delving past the alarming Air Quality Index numbers and infamous and often unbelievable photos, the director of I Wish I Knew (海上传奇 / 海上傳奇) and A Touch of Sin (天注定 / 天註定) says in an interview with Greenpeace, “I wanted to make a film that enlightens people, not frightens them.”
Following the fictional lives of a mining family in Hebei Province, home of 9 of China’s 10 most-polluted cities, and an upper-middle class family in neighboring Beijing, the understated film pushes two messages.
First, air pollution is everybody’s problem. “No one gets to be different when it comes to smog no matter what jobs we do,” Jia declares, reinforcing the message that the environment should be everybody’s concern. However, not discussed in the interview but evident from the film is that there is a difference — one based on class — how they are affected. In Hebei, the babies suffer from respiratory problems. Meanwhile, in Beijing, the kid takes soccer lessons.
The second message speaks to the stoicism of the Chinese people (Zhao Tao’s silent, fragile gaze plays particularly well here). Jia was quite moved that people living the airpocalypse continue to live their lives as Chinese have done through many difficult times throughout history:
“One thing that fascinated and shocked me the most was the fact that even on smoggy days, people still lived their lives as usual. For example, when the Air Quality Index hit 200 or 300 and the air turned opaque or gray, I still saw people dancing their square dances, young people still hanging out. Everyone was doing what they would normally be doing.
On the other hand, it was also a pretty sentimental situation. In such bad air pollution where [everybody] should be wearing masks outdoors, there was still a woman eating youtiao (Chinese deep-fried dough strips) out there another old lady dancing around, and a little kid playing football [and doing somersaults] and there you felt [a vitality], no matter what the circumstances and situations could be. I was quite touched by that.”
Colorful and cute animal-themed face masks stand-out in the gray dinge. Children sing about an idyllic day while a classmate writes the PM 2.5 count. A man removes an air-filtering scarf before a kiss. These scenes are surreal, but they’re part of everyday life.
Greenpeace hopes that the video will generate buzz on Chinese social media and lead to public awareness and action: “Greenpeace has been working on air pollution for three years, and we’ve produced a lot of data, scientific reports, investigations and all of this.” said Li Yan, head of the Climate and Energy Campaign Greenpeace East Asia.
“But we started to realize that normal people’s lives were already profoundly changed by air pollution, and we wanted to see if an artist could play a role in contributing to the air pollution fight.”