‘Caught By The Tides’ Review: Jia Zhangke’s Romance Is All Mood; Substance Is Harder To Come By – Cannes Film Festival

Stalwart Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke leads his partner and muse, Zhao Tao, on a decades-long romantic odyssey in Caught By the Tides, which tries too hard to play with time and form for the connection between its leads to be its central preoccupation.

Measured in silence interspersed with moments of dance and music — both performed and for pleasure — Qiaoqiao (Zhao) starts a relationship with the mysterious young Guo Bin (Li Zhubin) when she spots him across a dance floor. But their happily ever after isn’t to be when Bin grows frustrated and seeks an escape from their home in Datong, in the north of China. Qiaoqiao, confused by his sudden disappearance, goes in search of him, but his new life doesn’t seem to have a place for her.

More from Deadline

There’s little more to the story than this — some peripheral characters recur for a scene or three, hinting at a larger narrative than ever emerges, but Jia is more interested in playing with form and mood. Qiaoqiao and Bin never exchange dialogue; in fact, Qiaoqiao never speaks. It’s a conceit that proves harder for the director to maintain than it first appears. Eventually, distant and abstract looks at one another must pave way for a breakup scene that relies on inter-titles to express what’s being said, defeating the purpose.

RELATED: Cannes Film Festival 2024 Photos

The film’s larger narrative, really, is the march of time itself. Its first scenes were shot in 2001 and it has taken more than 20 years for the whole to come together. By the time we return to Datong at the film’s conclusion, the old coal-mining city has become another world of futuristic possibility entirely. Early in the film, we’re told the Olympics will come to Beijing. By its end, our characters are wearing masks and queuing for PCR tests as the Covid pandemic rolls through. On their journey, the constant construction and demolition of a country in permanent flux is never far away. China shifts and evolves as Qiaoqiao and Bin make very little progress at figuring themselves — and each other — out.

The director, too, uses the passage of time to review his own history in cinema. Early on, home video and 16mm film interweave to tell the tale; by the film’s end, we’re in a digital world, with high-tech cameras performing computer-controlled moves. It’s a lot, and the film is at its best when it is giving us a clean, beautifully cinematographic frame, which Jia never struggles to do, regardless of where we are in the timeline. But the notion of technology in flux does, at least, result in an amusing scene in which Qiaoqiao encounters a robot helper that welcomes her into a supermarket.

Zhao can do so much with her eyes — even when she wears an N95 mask that threatens to swallow the rest of her face — that she holds our attention in spite of her character’s stoicism. Even the robot can detect the sadness in Qiaoqiao’s face at a life wasted. Hers is the performance that anchors the film; Jia Zhangke’s informal, experimental approach to its construction might be his stock in trade, but without Zhao the tides would struggle to catch us.

Title: Caught By the Tides (Feng Liu Yi Dai)
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director-screenwriter: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Zhubin Li
Sales agent: MK2 Films
Running time: 1 hr 51 min

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.