Jia Zhangke’s is often a cinema of déjà vu: “We’re again in the northern Chinese city of Datong,” Giovanni Marchini Camia wrote for Sight and Sound back in 2019, “it’s again the start of the new millennium, Qiao is again dating a mobster, yet no one else makes a reappearance and there are enough differences to signal that this isn’t a sequel or remake.” Camia was writing about Ash Is Purest White yet much of the same could be said for Caught by the Tides, the director’s latest experiment in plundering his archive––indeed his memories––and spinning what he finds into something new. The protagonist of Tides is again named Qiao and is again played by Zhao Tao, appearing here in more than 20 years of the director’s footage and allowing the viewer to watch that singular creative partnership evolve in real time––one of the great treasures of contemporary cinema.

Making this kind of film can be done in two ways: go the Linklater route and shoot with the same group of actors once a year or so; otherwise you can find an actor with whom you will share a symbiotic relationship, in which case any work collaborated on may one day be fair game. Structurally, Ash and Tides are each other’s mirror image: love stories told over two decades in which a dancer (Zhao) falls in love with a dubious man, Guo Bin (Zhubin Li), and gets jilted in the city of Fengjie, only for him to return in a newly shot final act. The director has said he started working on Tides during lockdown as he pored over old footage, reassembling and tweaking that well-worn narrative. When I spoke to the director recently, he described the process in almost poetic terms: “I would say that it’s like clouds in the sky: clouds keep flowing, and they can go in any direction and into any shape or form.”

All those reflections aside, it is the least-conventional of his recent work. The film begins in 4:3 ratio, this time documentary footage from 2001 of a group of women singing popular songs. Tides then brings the viewer on a journey through two decades of monumental changes in the country, from being awarded the Olympic bid that year to the building of the Three Gorges Dam around the end of that decade (Jia’s signature narrative fulcrum), and all the way up to the age of COVID and TikTok. Early on there are some lovely street-level shots in which pedestrians look into camera à la Chantal Akerman’s To the East. There is also a dazzling sequence in which Zhao stalks a catwalk outside a new mega mall––the film’s first blast of cosmopolitan bustle. Gradually, and with little-to-no dialogue, Zhao’s character, a dancer working promotional gigs, emerges; as does Zhubin’s, who first appears as her manager. Events conspire to leave Qiao wandering alone in the city of Fengjie, attempting in vain to find him, while in the background residents are being relocated to towns on higher ground before the gorges are flooded. That these events have supplied the background to so many of his films never seems to diminish their historical heft in his work.

Still, there were times in Tides when I began wondering just how often one can go back to the well. It was curious to see Zhao appear in Ash Is Purest White wearing the same outfit she had worn in Still Life 12 years earlier––yellow shirt, rucksack out in front, trusty water bottle at the ready––but I must admit I struggled to let it go in Tides‘ second act, to see that character and accept her as someone with a different inner life and personal history. It doesn’t help that many of the scenes here are dialogue-free, with Jia relying on on-screen text messages to move the story along. Luckily, the best things are left for last––just don’t expect a critique of the country’s strict lockdown protocols. There is a great sequence where Bin discovers that his old cronies have started representing a local influencer on TikTok. There is also an achingly melodramatic finale. At the Cannes premiere this week, Zhao broke down in tears as the credits rolled. She’d been sitting with Jia, watching 20 years together flash by in an instant. Life is rarely so cinematic.

Caught by the Tides premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B

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