Chris Wisniewski on Useless
Useless, the new documentary by Jia Zhangke, avoids grand statements about fashion or the apparel industry or the rapid changes that are transforming Chinese life, though it is decidedly about all of these things. Clocking in at under 90 minutes, and deploying no voiceover, Useless is actually a deceptively modest piece of work—some may call it "minor"—but its modesty should not be taken for lack of ambition or for a failure on Jia’s part to grapple with his film’s subjects. Instead, Jia has crafted something beautiful, expansive, and deeply philosophical but has left it to his viewers to make their own connections—and to make up their own minds. Useless is really about the idea of clothing—what it means to each of us as individuals, where it comes from, and how that relates to our conceptions of identity and work—though Jia doesn't have the hubris to make these themes overt or impose his attitude towards these subjects on his audience.
The film begins at a Guangdong garment factory with some exquisite horizontal tracking shots of workers cutting and sewing garments. The fashion industry—as the phrase itself implies—represents the uncomfortable marriage of craft and design with mass production, and these opening images capture the tremendous skill and numbing routine of this sort of work, while also hinting at the massive scale of apparel production in contemporary China. This sequence also provides a point of contrast for the film's second section, which follows Chinese designer Ma Ke as she prepares and presents a new collection called Wu Yong (literally, “useless”). Ma rails against mass-produced fashion because of its anonymity. Instead, she designs clothing that she feels tells a story and has a history, hence the handmade, aged, and dirty pieces that make up her Wu Yong collection (she actually buries the clothes in the ground for three years to give them their character and unique identity, and then covers her models in literal dirt for the Wu Yong show during Paris Fashion Week). Jia seems ambivalent towards Ma's earnest haute couture stab at manufactured authenticity, though he provides an oblique counterpoint by turning his attention to a small mining town in the Shanxi province in the film's final third. Here, dirt isn't an aesthetic choice or a marker of authenticity but a fact of life, and clothing is just as functional as it is aesthetic.
While Useless has something of a tripartite structure, reflecting three different modes of garment production (mass, designer, and, for lack of a better word, artisanal), it nevertheless remains remarkably open and fluid. A later, extended sequence of miners showering at the end of the workday, for example, echoes and comments upon Ma's fashion show, with its dirtied models on display for an audience of sophisticated Parisian fashionistas, but it does so without a trace of didacticism or even overt graphic matches. More a survey than a treatise, Useless subtly maps different attitudes towards clothing onto different milieu. Towards the end of the movie, Jia interviews a former tailor (now a miner) and his wife about their clothes, and with a trace of embarrassment, the miner talks about the care and consideration he put into choosing a suit for his wife, even as he dismisses his own more functional wardrobe. It may be easy to scoff at the women presented early in the film in a Louis Vuitton fashion club, one of whom muses about the “philosophical” quality of Prada's designs, but in many ways, Jia's film is about that very issue: the philosophy of clothing as it relates to both the way clothing is made and our reasons for wearing it.
Given the richness of this material, Useless is all the more remarkable for its restraint. It offers very little context, comment, or elaboration through text or talking heads, and Jia has kept the interviews to a minimum. Instead, Useless edifies and provokes through the images themselves (hi-def and gorgeous throughout), which is simply another way of saying that this film is resolutely and uncompromisingly cinematic. If this is a minor work—and it may be—it is also unmistakably the work of one of the most insightful, talented, and exciting directors making movies anywhere in the world today.