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With: Jia Hongsheng, Jia Fengsen, Chai Xiurong
Written by: Zhang Yang, Huo Xin
Directed by: Zhang Yang
MPAA Rating: R for drug content
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 112
Date: 09/04/2001

Quitting (2002)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Winners, Too, Can Quit

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The only other film I can think of remotely similar to the new Quitting is The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), which cast Robinson as himself. Now, Robinson went through a pretty tough time in his day, but I'd wager the pain he felt was small compared to the pain Jia Hongsheng goes through in Quitting. The new film opens today at the Lumiere.

In real life, Jia Hongsheng enjoyed a brief career as a "B" movie tough guy -- appearing in films like Silver Snake Murders and Weekend Lover -- and becoming a kind of low-rent James Dean. Jia soon tired of these unworthy vehicles and attempted a much tougher role on stage as Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman, directed by Zhang Yang.

During the play's production, Jia tried heroin for the first time and began a long, complicated, downhill slide. That's where the film Quitting picks up, helmed by none other than Zhang Yang -- the best man for the job.

Zhang informs us during the credits that he has cast all real people from Jia's life -- from his parents to his sister to his doctors and fellow patients from his hospital stay. In addition, Zhang occasionally breaks the fourth wall and shows interviews with the "cast" members as well as suddenly pulling the camera back and revealing the action as performed on stage.

As the film begins, Jia is living in his sister's apartment, staying in a room decorated by a Taxi Driver poster and a painting of John Lennon. He broods silently and watches TV, and only leaves to occasionally bathe. His parents suddenly arrive and move in with the intention of helping him on the journey back to sobriety and normal life.

Jia strikes up a relationship with his father (Jia Fengsen), and the two take long walks together, Jia forcing his father to wear blue jeans and trying to explain the Beatles while quaffing beers. (American viewers may find themselves baffled at the movie's odd translation of the lyrics to "Let It Be.")

Jia's fuse is short, though, and he constantly blows up at any little thing. In one scene, he demands that his parents give him money to eat. They explain that they don't have much money and that they need it for medicine; Jia explodes and threatens to destroy the TV set before he gets finally his way and silently storms out.

In the next shot, Zhang shows him slurping down noodles at a restaurant, his face registering no emotion whatsoever.

In fact, Jia expresses himself solely through anger and through his odd choice of clothes, which look as if they were leftover from his salad days in the late 80s -- spandex shorts, boots, tight t-shirts, etc. Though he wears his unkempt hair over his eyes, you can still feel them searing through the split ends and into your soul.

Director Zhang's last film, the cuddly, Mirimax-like art house film Shower, a non-challenging, non-threatening multi-character piece centered around a public bath house, could not possibly have prepared me for the sucker-punch of Quitting.

Indeed, Quitting feels more like it belongs to the up-and-coming Sixth Generation of Chinese directors -- including Jia Zhang-ke (Platform) and Lou Ye (Suzhou River) -- dedicated to turning the Fifth Generation's polite costume epics on their ears.

I suppose Quitting is really more of a successful experiment than it is a successful movie. It's difficult to stay with Jia during his many, many tirades. But as you're watching you remember his past as a movie star and you note that the tall, lanky firecracker does have a certain something to him. And then you further note that, in reliving these tortured days, this must be the most difficult performance of all time.

In other words, if the film were merely a biopic, with some other actor depicting Jia (and drowned, no doubt, in violin music), it would not have much going for it. Zhang and Jia's bravery in delving into harsh reality to mine filmic unreality makes it something special.

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