Actress Zhao Tao struggled to hold back tears after the Cannes premiere of her and director Jia Zhangke’s latest feature Caught By The Tides, a movie that doubles as something of a greatest hits for the beloved sixth gen Chinese filmmaker. You can’t really blame her—how else should one react when sat in a movie theatre watching their life flash before their eyes?

In many ways, that’s what Caught by the Tides is: a cinematic odyssey bridging the past and present that not only captures a moment in time in Chinese history, but also a lifetime of collaboration between Tao and her husband Zhangke, their artistry explicitly tied after 24 years and 11 films made together. Their screen partnership started at the turn of the millennium (with Platform), so it’s no coincidence that the film opens in 2001, before later transitioning to Post-Covid present day.  

caught by the tides review
Zhao Tao in Caught by the Tides (dir. Jia Zhangke)

The first half of the film is made up entirely of snipped-together archive imagery from over two decades worth of Zhangke’s films, while only the second half uses original visuals shot specifically for the movie. Some have called this lazy filmmaking on Zhangke’s part, an uninspired recycling of old footage and old themes to half-ass his way through making a feature. I couldn’t disagree more. What Zhangke gives us here is a different perspective on what’s come before, breathing new life into old reels as if he’s communicating directly with his younger self. The result is a stripped-back, mesmerising tribute to the moving image as a bastion of preserving memory—be it of romance, culture, a time in history, or in the case of Caught by the Tides, all of the above.

At the centre of the film is Tao, magnetic as ever, as Qiao Qiao, who leaves her home in Datong province in search for her missing boyfriend Guao Bin (Li Zhubin). The premise is no far cry from Zhangke’s previous film Ash Is Purest White (2018), which also saw Tao travelling the country hunting down an ex-lover, and Tides even features a disco scene reminiscent of the brilliant Y.M.C.A. needle drop in Ash.

There’s a place for Tao in the hall of fame of Great leading ladies, alongside the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Maggie Cheung, and Caught by the Tides is as perfect a showreel as you can get, time travelling between past and present collaborations with her husband to make one electrifying career-spanning performance. Not much has changed in her method. Her striking, owlish eyes still communicate worlds of emotion, her walk still carries immeasurable charisma. Zhangke clearly recognises more than anyone the power his long-standing muse can hold over an audience, considering that, except for when she’s singing, Tao doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue in the film. When she absolutely needs to, Zhangke chooses to cut to caption cards, lovingly tipping his hat to the silent era. 

caught by the tides review
Zhao Tao in Caught By The Tides (dir. Jia Zhangke)

The film spends considerable time observing Qiao Qiao as she eeks out a living in Datong, working as everything from a hostess to a dancer, following her as a young woman in love to an older woman reuniting with a lost love. In the backdrop of it all is China, and Zhangke pays it as much attention as the story itself, often meandering from the narrative to explore the lives of the locals inhabiting a country on the brink of globalisation. It’s a time that Zhangke clearly has a great deal of nostalgia for, and though there’s a yearning to get back to Tao (a testament of just how great of a screen presence she is), some of the film’s most affecting moments occur during these lengthy detours into a culture bound by the community and perseverance of the working class. These sequences are full of life and laughter. In one shot, a group of middle-aged women sit inside a tiny paint-peeled shack taking turns passionately belting Chinese ballads. In another, a party of twenty-somethings dance joyfully during a sweaty karaoke session. Zhangke pans over them all slowly and lovingly, and it feels briefly that the camera takes the point of view of China itself—a proud father watching his children sing and dance together. 

When we revisit the same city an hour later, it feels almost unrecognisable, with Zhangke grieving lost community and lamenting the few echoes of the past that still roam the streets. It’s the lyrical, meandering moments of observation in Caught by the Tides that will move you to tears, a quiet reward for those who have the patience to tune into Zhangke’s frequency. Don’t let its slow pace fool you—this is thrilling, sometimes transcendental filmmaking.

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