Caught by the Tides: Jia Zhangke reincarnates his greatest works in a sprawling, essayistic love story

Jia Zhangke’s recurring character Qiao Qiao (Zhao Tao) goes in search of her lover in this overly-familiar meditation on Chinese life, stitched together with footage from the director’s finest films.

Caught by the Tides (2024)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. 

Caught by the Tides is a title that could belong to any of Jia Zhangke’s films. Across his oeuvre, Jia has remained remarkably committed to a specific theme, namely the experience of living through the epochal socioeconomic changes that have transformed China in recent decades. Despite this unwavering focus, with each film he found a new perspective to enrich his ever-more expansive national portrait. 

In this respect, Caught by the Tides is a relative disappointment. You could argue it forms part of a trilogy alongside Mountains May the Depart (2015) and Ash Is Purest White (2018). All three films have a tripartite structure, with the story starting around the turn of the millennium and twice jumping forward several years, charting the sentimental tribulations and growing independence of a character played by Zhao Tao, Jia’s longtime actress. In Ash Is Purest White, she was named Qiao Qiao and appeared to be a reincarnation of characters Zhao had played in Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Still Life (2006). Returning to the locations of those earlier films – the former coal mining town of Datong and the city of Fengjie on the Yangtze river – she wore the same clothes as her earlier personae, but the story granted her a level of agency denied to her predecessors. Caught by the Tides again revisits these characters and locations, though the purpose of this additional iteration isn’t clear.   

It’s possible that the choice was dictated by the film’s formal conceit, as the first two chapters are composed of found footage. Previously unused documentary material that Jia and his collaborators collected over the past two decades is intercut with moments from Unknown Pleasures and Still Life. (One suspects some of these might have been salvaged from the cutting room floor.) Because the footage was shot in a variety of formats, ranging from videotape and DV to 35mm, the quality of the image and the aspect ratio change constantly. 

Caught by the Tides (2024)

This is especially true of the Datong chapter, set in 2001. Virtually free of dialogue and more experimental than anything Jia has done before, it’s the film’s strongest section. The fluid montage, propelled by a soundtrack of pop, punk and traditional songs, results in an almost essayistic meditation on collective memory, with the passing of time inscribed in the very materiality of the film. The clips focus on community and celebration: a group of women take turns singing a song, young people dance at a nightclub, an audience watches Chinese opera, streets full of people cheer Beijing winning the bid for the 2008 Olympics. Every so often, Qiao Qiao and her boyfriend Bin (Li Zhubin) appear, via excerpts from Unknown Pleasures. Because the film was shot on early digital video, the characters seem to belong to the same crowds as the documentary scenes. 

After Bin leaves Datong to seek his fortune elsewhere, Caught by the Tides relocates to Fengjie years later, when Qiao Qiao arrives looking for Bin. Mainly using footage from Still Life and Ash Is Purest White, the editing shifts to a more contemplative pace and the narrative becomes more pronounced. Title cards reminiscent of silent films convey Qiao Qiao’s few lines of dialogue, calling attention to the fact that, apart from singing a song early on, she never speaks a word aloud. The melancholy mood is beautifully realised as Qiao Qiao roams Fengjie while the buildings all around, some of them centuries old, are being demolished ahead of the area’s flooding by the newly built Three Gorges Dam. Still, this central chapter can’t help but feel somewhat redundant, seeing as the imagery of destruction was used to same effect in Still Life and the plot is essentially identical.

Only Caught by the Tides’ third act consists exclusively of original scenes. Now it’s 2022 and Bin returns to Datong during the pandemic. Though Jia’s depiction of the Chinese Covid restrictions appears benign compared to what has been reported and the videos that circulated online, the contrast between this sterilised, atomised society and the vibrant collectivity of the beginning is nonetheless poignant. As is the moment when Bin removes his mask, revealing a worn and wrinkled face with only a faint resemblance to his younger self. Qiao Qiao, on the other hand, hardly seems to have aged. Jia highlights this disparity during the characters’ reunion, extending the criticism of China’s patriarchal culture that has become increasingly central to his cinema. It’s a powerful and moving finale, even if it is familiar.