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Caught by the Tides

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Caught by the Tides
Photograph: Cannes Film Festival

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Jia Zhangke embarks on an enthralling, enigmatic odyssey through two decades of life in China

This dreamy, arresting, dialogue-light latest from Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke (Ash Is Purest White) is a poetic, musical and reflective portrait of one woman’s journey to find an old lover – but equally importantly to find herself – set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing nation. 

Jia presents his frequent star (and wife) Zhao Tao (incredibly captivating here) as Qiao Qiao, a young woman from Datong in northern China. We follow her as she leaves her home city, searching for a disappeared former boyfriend, Brother Bin (Li Zhubin). Following a stormy relationship, Bin has abruptly left both Qiao and Datong for a life of shady property development in the middle of the country. But as time goes on Qiao’s search feels less like a search for a person and more like a search for soul and for meaning in a country where so much is changing so quickly.

Caught by the Tides is more a montage of music and miscellaneous episodes than anything representing a traditional drama. It’s strongly propelled by music – from Chinese classical music to techno to rock – and it’s a heady visual mix of styles and formats: from grainy, phone-like footage in a documentary style, to much more pristine and considered imagery. It is set – and was actually shot – over more than 20 years, between 2001 to 2023, so the passage of time feels unusually real, giving us people and places who genuinely age and transform over the years.

There’s so little conversation, it often feels like a silent film

It’s an enigmatic experience. What’s especially hard to unpick, but will surely thrill anyone familiar with Jia’s films over the past two decades, including Unknown Pleasures (2002), which directly shares a character with Caught by the Tides, and 2006’s Still Life, which also put a spotlight on the flooding of the Three Gorges Dam project, is that so much of this is edited together from footage shot years ago and related to Jia’s previous films.

There’s so little conversation in Caught By The Tides that it often feels like a silent film, and Jia even uses title cards to share some key bits of dialogue. This pared-down approach to characterisation and the lack of real intimate detail about both Qiao and Brother Bin works in the film’s favour. By the time that Qiao, quite literally, runs off into the future (soon after a face-to-face encounter with a friendly supermarket robot), you feel that her story is as much the story of a nation as it’s the story of one woman.

Caught By the Tides premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Dave Calhoun
Written by
Dave Calhoun

Cast and crew

  • Director:Jia Zhangke
  • Screenwriter:Jia Zhangke, Jiahuan Wan
  • Cast:
    • Tao Zhao
    • Zhubin Li
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