The movie Platform is a static, artistically misguided, and overly pedestrian portrayal of the sense of stagnation and helplessness that the Chinese felt in the 1980's. The film main focus is a troupe of actors whose struggle reflects the political and social changes that swept China after Mao's death. Over the course of the film the troupe's performances shift from state-sanctioned Maoist propaganda to western candy-pop music, but ultimately they find themselves trapped between two worlds as there is little public desire for either the old or new.
The impression is that the acting troupe, and by extension the city of Fenyang itself, is cut off from the outside world. This disparity might have been the driving emotional epicenter of a stronger film, but unfortunately Platform clings desperately to flawed artistic premise and a pretension towards meta-cinema that eviscerates its own potential. Still, the movie's one strength is the tangible distinction between those trapped in Fenyang and the westernization and modernization of the outside world. Over the course of the "story" modern influences begin to emerge in the lives of the characters, electricity, premarital co-habitation, bellbottoms, birth-control, perms, and privatization of business. To explore the clash of the old and new each of these "advancements" is opposed at some turn, but ultimately end up being unable to propel those trapped in Fenyang into the modern world.
Additionally, there is a deep impression that all of the characters are being left behind, that somehow the world has forgotten them and is moving on regardless. When Zhang Zu, a former member of the acting troupe, returns home from the "big wide world" the disjunct between those trapped and the rest of China becomes clear. Those from Fenyang have no purpose, the closest thing that the characters have to an action scene is throwing mud clods at cars. They are stagnant, without opportunity and hopelessly trapped in a transitional era.
This, I assume, is why the film was so boring. Nothing happened in Platform because in this era of transition Chinese citizens had nothing to do, and they were boring because they were bored. The film attempts to authentically showcase real human interactions, the conversations all have uncomfortable pauses and often the discussions go nowhere. Rather than using exciting archetypes or deliberate characterization, the performers are all dull and interchangeably human. The entire troupe is utterly and completely without purpose, drive, inspiration, or the very things that would make them, by any measurable degree, worth the audience's time.
The film very quickly becomes a period piece, hours of exhaustingly pointless dialogue designed to instill bitter nostalgia in those who lived through the era and disgust in anyone else. Which brings me to a very important artistic point. A piece of cinema does not need to literally instill the feelings that it attempts to portray in order to be successful. For example, a character can be confused without actually confusing and frustrating the audience, any piece of cinema that literally drags viewers to the same emotional distress of the character (especially tedium) has failed. This was what I assume that the director wished to impress upon viewers, but film that effectively portrays the horror of the holocaust does not need to put a bullet in the brainpan of each of its viewers. This film could have either explored its message in an exciting and skillful manner, or kept its bland everyday style and illustrated its point in a fifth of the film's actual running time.
The real tragedy is that Platform may have had something significant to say, but we will never know for sure. There was a brief foray into a coal mining town that ignited some interest, promising a tragically meaningful digression before its dramatic potential (indeed all dramatic potential) was ignored. This film ends as suddenly and inexplicably as it begins, leaving the audience with no sense of permanence or conclusion. And what could have been an endearing and personal take on the identity crisis of the lost generation was stretched and abused into an unwatchable mess. I suspect unironically that Jia Zhangke is just a horrible filmmaker, and that this impossible waste of screen-time achieved international notoriety through a perfect storm of Chinese sentiments, artistic pretentiousness, and cognitive dissidence.