Useless finds Jia Zhangke operating in something of a hybrid style, partaking in both non-fiction and fictional filmic modes for his three-part examination of China’s garment industry. It’s a line of attack at once entrancing and frustrating, as Jia’s humanistic opening documentary segment and touching semi-dramatic third portion bookend a middle verité section that never quite meshes with the surrounding material. The film begins with a tracking shot of workers in a clothing factory, with Jia’s empathetic close-ups – thanks to Yu Lik Wai’s masterful HD cinematography – grounding the film’s portrait in individual experience. The laborers toil, eat, and visit the company doctor, routine events that are soon juxtaposed with designer Ma Ke, who laments China’s industrialization while readying a line of garments that integrates notions of history, nationalism and man’s relationship to the Earth. Jia, as usual, is interested in investigating the effects of modernization on contemporary human life. Yet Ma Ke’s thoughts on the subject, as well as the public debut of her fashions in Paris, are treated with muted respect that leaves one with only a vague impression of how Jia truly feels about her work’s attempts to address (and redress) some of the effects of the manufacturing business. Fortunately, though, the director regains his footing during the final half hour, detailing the daily travails of a small community’s tailors via a blend of real and staged incidents that capture, with piercing authenticity and stunning grace, the multifaceted relationship we share with our clothes.
(2007 New York Film Festival)