Cinematic Travelogues

in Cannes 2024

by Patrick Fey

How fiction chronicles history in Jia Zhangke’s Caught by the Tides and Miguel Gomes’ Grand Tour

It was one of the more notable terms specific to the criticism emerging from this year’s Cannes Film Festival: the travelogue. Especially Jia Zhangke’s Caught by the Tides (Feng liu yi dai; China 2024) and Miguel Gomes’ Grand Tour (Portugal 2024) – two international standouts in an overall uninspired Competition – evoked what we may call the cinematic counterpart to travel literature, a line of writing which, traditionally, has paralleled the protagonists’ inner advancement as they traverse (often unfamiliar) geographies and make acquaintance with different cultures and people.

But whereas the Chinese master Jia resorted to his own repertoire of (foremost unused) footage of more than two decades of filmmaking – spanning from Unknown Pleasures (Rèn xiāoyáo; China 2002) to Ash Is Purest White (Jiānghú érnǚ; China 2018), braided together with scenes from newly shot projects – Miguel Gomes embarked quite literally on a grand tour for his most recent eponymous film. Guided by the idea of preempting his protagonists’ journeys as we see them play out in the film, Gomes took his filmmaking crew along his voyages across Southeast Asia – from Myanmar to the Sichuan Province, via Bangkok, Saigon, Shanghai and other places – thereby following the precedent of the historical grand tour on which many European travellers went in the beginning of the century. In so doing, Gomes, in contrast to Jia’s seizure of old footage for Caught by the Tides, compiled an archive of his own right that naturally features numerous anachronisms and contributes to the film’s overall diachronic nature.

In the beginning, the juxtaposition between the intradiegetic black-and-white images and the colourful 16-mm footage that was shot during the touring of Gomes and his crew in early 2020 seem relatively clear-cut. The production history behind these contemporary scenes seems worth highlighting, for Gomes’ grand tour, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had to come to a sudden close right before boarding a ferry to Shanghai. The material of the final stage of the tour (especially in China) was thus shot through remote direction from Lisbon in 2022, where Gomes shot many of the scenes from 1918 in a studio to stress the recreational aspect of his film. As he develops the story of his central couple, Edward Abbot and his fiancée of seven years Molly Singleton – which amounts to the same number of years the two have not seen each other – Gomes progressively discards the binary structure of fictional and non-fictional images.

In the embedded narrative set in 1918, Edward, a colonial officer of the English Empire stationed at Malaya – the capital of what was then known as British Burma – takes to his heels as Molly’s steamboat from London announces itself on the horizon. Fleeing both his administrative and marital obligations – for reasons that, to the end, appear of an obscure nature – Edward sets in motion a cat-and-mouse game with his ever so cheerful prospective wife, well aware that the cues he leaves behind will not be lost on her. After following Edward as he, seemingly adrift, steadily advances toward the East (though his, however conscious, route, seems ultimately destined to reach Tibet), the narrative focuses on Molly, who, determined to consummate the overdue marriage, remains closely on his trail.

The blended-in voice-over narrations, asynchronous in their telling with the depicted sceneries and told by disembodied voices pertaining to the local languages of the respective countries Edward and Molly traverse, add further discordance to the film’s texture. All the while, present-day elements increasingly sneak into the frame, most noticeably perhaps in a close-up of a smartphone bedded among tropical weeds, which, as it starts ringing, has a surmissably sobering effect. As we follow along, Gomes habituates us to these intrusions of the present, up to a point where we are no longer taken by surprise by the skyscrapers protruding from Shanghai’s hazy cityscape as we traverse its bay on motorised boats.

Considering such instances of poetic licence that Gomes grants himself, it almost seems absurd that Molly, toward the end of the part of the journey that the film captures, is told by an old, wise man that she cannot travel up the Yangtze River, for the current be too strong. Clearly, the man is not in on the cinematic project. At this point at the latest, however, the unbeknown thematic ties to Jia Zhangke’s Caught by the Tides are as strong as ever.

Against the univocal passivity suggested in its title (while the original Chinese title 风流一代 allows for several meanings, the director himself, for one, prefers The Drifting Generation), Jia’s motivic offerings as to what to classify as “tides”, and, subsequently, how to conceive of them, seem all but unambiguous. One of the central symbols, the Three Gorges Dam – which is not only the world’s largest hydro power plant, but the largest power station overall – metonymically encapsulates China’s economic uprise within the last two decades, and hints at the price at which it came.

Across the same Yangtze River that in Gomes’ Grand Tour (at least upwards) represents a life-threatening route for Molly, the Three Gorges Dam was built in the early 2000s. At that time, and in subsequent years, many animal species were threatened with extinction, as were many of the people of Fengjie County forcefully displaced, which is recorded in Jia’s Golden Lion winning film Still Life (Sānxiá Hǎorén) from 2006 – the year the dam was inaugurated. There, we see the simultaneous de- and construction concomitant with the building of the dam in and around the perishing town of Fengjie.

If we zoom out far enough, Jia’s filmmaking suggests, fiction is able to chronicle the times through which we live. The project that initially went by the working title The Man with a Digital Camera, starting in 2001 when digital filmmaking was still in its infancy, has taken on a disparate and fragmented nature over time as Jia and his crew(s) travelled across his home country, creating a scaffolding of a story held together only by thematic throughlines and the sheer thespian force of his long-time creative collaborator, and wife Zhao Tao as the central and, for the most part, mute protagonist Qiaoqiao.

It was not until the beginning of the pandemic that Jia looked into this footage spanning not only the presidencies of Hu Jintao and, in particular, Xi Jinping, but all kinds of digital cameras and aspect ratios the director worked with over time. Far beyond the overt, if loosely structured, narrative concern with Qiaoqiao’s search for her former lover Brother Bin (Li Zhubin) – another parallel to Grand Tour and Molly’s quest of tracking down her fiancé – Caught by the Tides not only becomes a travel through time, but a voyage through a significant share of Jia’s filmography.

Looking back at these two films and their positioning in the 2024 Cannes Competition, it is less that Gomes’ and Jia’s approach of destabilising fiction through interweaving archival documentary footage with narrative scenes is of groundbreaking originality. There were other much less discussed films in the sidebar sections – such as Lou Ye’s ambitious An Unfinished Film (Yi Bu Wei Wan Cheng De Dian Ying; Singapore 2024) in the Special Screenings section and Josh Mond’s anarchical sophomore feature It Doesn’t Matter (USA 2024) in the ACID section – that may formally make for even more daring works of the overall festival. What is specific to Jia’s and Gomes’ newest, respectively, is their conveyance of cinematic wanderlust and its adjacent curiosity for the chronicling potency of fiction.

Patrick Fey
Edited by Savina Petkova