Unknown Pleasures (Ren Xiao Yao, 2001) is the third film from Chinese director Zhang Ke Jia. More than anything, it's the simple but complicated tale of the Westernization of the director's home country. Unfortunately, 'Westernization' is no compliment in this case, as Unknown Pleasures easily ranks among the most depressing films I've seen this year. In short, it follows several young characters through their empty, decayed lives: they are truly the living dead, and it makes for quite a harrowing experience, even if you're ready for it. While not as gripping and dark as films like Requiem for a Dream, Unknown Pleasures plays out more like an international version of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine's Kids.
Here's the problem, though: as gritty and ugly as everything is, it's nothing that adventurous viewers haven't seen before. Plain and simple, there's not much story here, and it barely even stays afloat as a character study. There are many stretches where Unknown Pleasures flounders in the water, never really going in any particular direction. There's quite a bit of 'down time', and the overall feel of the film is anything but linear. While other films have walked this delicate line with ease, Unknown Pleasures seems to stumble and drift along the way.
Still, the film has a few good moments. Despite loads of filler and a very uneven sense of pacing, there are some hard-hitting political and economical themes to be found here. To put it bluntly, no country is without its poor and downtrodden, and tragedy can be a lot closer than you think. For every failure and heartbreak found in the film's 115-minute running time, there was an underlying theme that rings true for any generation or culture: dreams don't always come true. There is a certain poignancy to the events depicted onscreen, but it still might be too heavy for most viewers to really appreciate.
Unfortunately, even during the strongest parts of the film, part of me wanted to forget about the whole experience altogether. Of course, that's not to say that the film was terrible: despite its many flaws, the main reason it didn't appeal to me was the subject matter in general. Overall, it was just hard for me to empathize (or even identify) with any of the characters, and this lack of a connection didn't make for an especially memorable viewing experience. Long story short, I've never been a victim of many of the tragedies here, both self-inflicted and otherwise. Sure, that makes me feel a little guilty (although I should really consider myself fortunate), but this ugly picture is something I don't like to dwell on if given a choice. Still, I know there's a vocal majority that loves and genuinely appreciates this film, so maybe it'll grow on me if I give it another chance.
In any case, Unknown Pleasures arrives on DVD courtesy of New Yorker Video. Unfortunately, the disc is a bit lacking in supplements, but the technical presentation is above average. It's too bad, really...a stronger effort may have helped this film. Anyway, let's see how this one stacks up:
Quality Control Department
Although Unknown Pleasures didn't completely win me over as a film, at least it looks nice. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio showcases the gritty cinematography, and brings all of the ugliness to your attention…whether you're ready for it or not. Overall, this is an excellent overall visual presentation, despite somewhat low production values. Colors are fairly accurate, and appear slightly muted (as intended by the director). Contrast and black levels were also solid, but I noticed a bit of edge enhancement and softness in certain scenes. Still, this is a quality effort and really benefits the overall viewing experience.
Presented in its original Mandarin with optional English subtitles, this Dolby Surround mix is standard fare and not terribly exciting. Still, it's worth noting that the overall ambience and atmosphere are quite good, and the dialogue is easily heard. This was a satisfying mix for a dialogue-driven film, but I still can't help but feel it could have been slightly more dynamic.
Menu Design & Packaging:
Menus for this compilation were pretty basic, and the overall presentation could have been more interesting. The keepcase packaging is pretty standard, and has even more distractingly large quotes than the recent Lost in Translation. Overall, I found this presentation to be pretty lackluster, but I guess this is as good as it's going to get.
Unfortunately, bonus features are practically non-existent for this release...all we get is the trailer (unless you count 'Scene Selections' as an extra). This is particularly disappointing, as an audio/text commentary or an interview with the director may have helped me appreciate the film more. As it stands, most audiences will be left in the dark, and that's no way to treat any film.
Despite the glowing quotes on the cover artwork, I didn't find Unknown Pleasures to be anything really special. Still, it may be worth checking out if you're a huge fan of foreign cinema, and the visuals alone can be stunning. Unfortunately, the DVD by New Yorker Video doesn't provide much other than a decent technical presentation, and the stiff $30 price tag really hurts even a mild recommendation. Despite the drawbacks to the film itself, it still wouldn't hurt to Rent It. If nothing else, maybe you'll get more out of it than I did.
Randy Miller III is a part-time cartooning instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.