Useless is quite an apt title for Zhang-ke Jia's documentary about the Chinese fashion industry. It flits around aimlessly, testing the patient of the most ardent of festival goers I'm sure. Jia, whose award-winning Still Life I saw at MIFF in 2007 was amazing, takes a three pronged approach to the subject. With the first act of Useless he shows the factory workers of Chinese fashion slaving away to the meditative beat of Going Lim's music score. It's an almost wordless segment of the film that ends with a montage of prestigious fashion houses, as if the idea that people in third world nations (or, in this case, third world regions of super countries like China) creating the products that rich people on Madison Avenue purchase is something altogether new. We watch as presumably poor and quiet folk sow and needle and purchase lunch. At one point a man goes to see a doctor about a sore throat. Thrilling stuff, indeed.
Following that is the story of Ma Ke, a Chinese designer who buries her quite outlandish designs (one model backstage talks of how the coat she has to wear is so heavy she can't stand up straight) to give them authenticity of the Earth or some such. This middle part of the film has the most potential, but it doesn't probe anywhere deep enough into the role of Chinese, or Asians in general, in the world of fashion. It merely paints a quite unenthusiastic portrait of someone who is passionate, if a little kooky, about her art, but does so without enough filmmaking pizazz to make it interesting.
After this segment Jia then takes a more observational look at the lives of a family of tailors in provincial China as they work at their tailoring store and do not much else. By this stage of the movie I had long given up caring what was happening, but it is here that Jia at least tries to connect the audience emotionally to one of his subjects.
And then the movie ends. Phew. My eyelids were thankful. All this must sound like I absolutely hated the movie. Well, that's not quite true. The images captured by cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wei are quite beautiful. The opening silent movie segment is filled with gorgeous tracking shots of the factory and one moment of particular delight as a horde of workers manage to make their way through the gates in one of the more "you've got to see it to believe it" moments of cinema recently. When Ke goes to Paris her fashion show, which uses light boxes and ethereal music, is quite the showstopper and the closing image of a model covered in thick mud and looking like a statue is quietly haunting.
Unfortunately the film is so painstaking in it's portrayal of not that much that makes Useless a, yes, useless endeavor. C-