Jia Zhang-Ke’s roaming kino-eye finds an ideal subject with Useless, a three-part documentary ostensibly about the clothing designer Ma Ke, but actually concerning the spiritual life (or lack thereof) of the Chinese clothing industry as a whole. The first part of the film begins in industrial Guangdong where we see the hardcore world of the clothing factories. Enormous, oppressive, and alienating, these vast mechanical spaces seem to do everything in their power to neutralize the personalities and undermine the health of the workers within. The second section—the soul of the film—deals with Ma Ke. She is the antithesis of sweatshop. Her handmade haute couture looks (and, one assumes, feels) completely organic and natural. Her workshop is like a sanctuary, a place where an artist can meditate quietly and create in peace.
But whether in Ma Ke’s placid environs or amidst the squall of the machines, Jia’s almost constantly moving camera seems to bring an elegiac tranquility to everything it observes. The movement is hypnotic and so self-assured that one suspects the director could make visual poetry out of absolute nothingness—which is pretty close to the heart of the film’s title. (Actually, Wu Yong aka “Useless,” is the not-so-ironic name of Ma Ke’s new clothing line, which premiered at Paris Fashion Week earlier this year.) The final third of the film takes place in a mining town, focusing on a tailor shop frequented by the laborers. From the City of Lights to the coal pits, clothing, as Jia has commented, “also has memories.”
Fashion is all surface, and Jia is languid emotion in motion. It makes for a heady mix. The assembly-line workers may be tyrannized by the powers that be, but Jia still manages to imbue them with some sort of cinematic grace and dignity. If there was ever physical evidence of a magical lens, Useless certainly testifies.
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