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Unknown Pleasures

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From China joining the World Trade Organization to Beijing getting selected to host the 2008 Olympic Games, the most dramatic events in Jia Zhang Ke's Unknown Pleasures take place on TV, each one a new promise that meaningful change and prosperity will soon follow. But for the young, disaffected zombies that populate the film, history stays confined to the tube, leaving their futures cloudy and uncertain, with no greater destiny than the ephemeral rush of American movies, dance clubs, and slow drags off a cigarette. Context is everything for 32-year-old Jia, whose films speak for a generation that's come of age during a period of massive social transition, yet doesn't reap the purported benefits. But much like his overrated 2000 opus Platform, Unknown Pleasures spends more energy fussing over the backdrop than on the poor souls languishing in the fore, who have little to do but wander aimlessly and symbolically as life passes them by. Set in the small provincial city of Datong, the film centers on Zhao Wei Wei and Wu Qiong, jobless best friends who spend their limitless free time hanging around a pool hall, tooling around the city on mopeds, and coveting the American dollars that will get them out of their rut. Still living at home with his mother, who is lost to the Falun Gong religious cult, Zhao joins the long line of young men looking to volunteer for military service, but his blood tests reveal hepatitis. Meanwhile, Wu pursues the forbiddingly beautiful Zhao Tao, a traveling dancer shilling for Mongolian King Liquor, a company run by a possessive gangster (Zhou Qing Feng) who keeps her on a tight leash and sics his goons on each of her suitors. As their situation grows more hopeless, the two friends hatch a comically misconceived robbery scheme to scrape up some quick money. The title Unknown Pleasures comes from the Taoist writings of Zhuangzi, whose credo ("Do what feels good") becomes a sort of despairing philosophy for its characters, who long for real freedom and independence, but can never wrest themselves from the constraints of their homes, their city, or their country. Their live-fast-and-die-young attitude aligns them with James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or Marlon Brando in The Wild One, but Jia never gives them the same dynamism, perhaps deliberately draining them of any youthful spirit. With two empty shells at its center, the film draws much of its fascination from the fringes, which are alive with an up-to-the-second immediacy that's enforced by the digital-video photography, as if Jia wants to bottle one key historical moment for the time capsule. Speaking for a voiceless generation, Unknown Pleasures has the broad thesis of an overreaching editorial, but lacks the clarity and depth to bring it to life.