Chinese director Jia Zhangke lets his characters vent their rage in latest film

In his latest social critique of the mainland, art house director Jia Zhangke finally lets his characters release the rage, writes Sue Green

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 8:42am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 8:59am

When Jia Zhangke’s latest film, A Touch of Sin, was released, critics were shocked. What happened to the sedate, somewhat meditative pace  of his earlier works? And why the extreme violence?

But for the 43-year-old director-scriptwriter, this was not so much what The Guardian described as  “a stark departure from his usual contemplative tone”, as an inevitable outcome of the pressures his characters were under – pressures which, in the earlier films, they had controlled better. And, yes, the parallels with life in contemporary China are deliberate.

“I think the rapid economic development of China creates a lot of pressure in people’s daily lives and there are not good chances to solve this kind of problem,” Jia says through an interpreter at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which included A Touch of Sin in its programme. 

“It is true this film is extremely violent compared to my old works, but in my old films the characters also lived under certain kinds of pressures but they… tolerated the pressure,” Jia says.

“The difference is the characters in this film used different ways to deal with the pressure that comes from life.

“I also talk about the gap between the rich and the poor; it has always been a topic in my films.”

In an earlier movie, the wealthier characters could afford to buy a building. In A Touch of Sin, they can afford to buy a private plane. “The gap has become greater,” Jia says.

His latest work, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, focuses on four characters, based on real-life cases which Jia read about on the popular microblogging site Weibo.

There’s a young man who committed suicide at the Guangdong factory where iPhones are made; a migrant worker who finds that a gun brings more lucrative opportunities than the labour market; a rural miner who is driven to mass murder by village leadership corruption; and a spa receptionist (played by Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao) who stabs a lecherous customer who had slapped her with a wad of cash when she refused him sex.

While Weibo discussions on such sociopolitical issues are ultimately censored, Jia says the film itself – sensitive topics and all – received wide coverage. “News reporting is more open on the mainland,” he says. “But it happens a little bit slower in the film world.”

Jia brought home the best screenplay award at Cannes, and A Touch of Sin garnered the Black Pearl Award (which comes with a US$100,000 purse) for best narrative Film at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last month.

The film and a number of its crew are also in the running for six prizes, including in the categories of best feature, best director and best original screenplay, at the Golden Horse Awards in Taipei on November 23. 

The internationally acclaimed film has yet to secure a release date  on the mainland.

Social problems in his homeland have been at the heart of Jia’s filmmaking. Born in Shanxi province, he graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1993. Among his earliest short films is Xiao Shan Going Home (1995), about a poor cook trying to find his way home for the Lunar New Year, which became a top prize winner at the 1997 Hong Kong Independent Short Film & Video Awards. 

“On the mainland, the movement between different classes is almost impossible, so this creates a lot of pressure for young people. It is impossible for them to achieve their dreams. Another reason is the injustice of the legal system,” the filmmaker says.

“So in my films, I think, the root of the violence comes from the problems in society. But I think people also need to reflect on the problems.”

Jia cites the example of violence at airports, where arguments and fights break out when flights are delayed. “It is a very common phenomenon [on the mainland]. The anger accumulates in people,” he says, but concedes: “Not everyone uses violence to solve their problems.”

By highlighting these tensions in his films, he wants to help people understand why there are so many violent incidents on the mainland – “to look for the reasons”. People shy away from discussing this and prefer not to think about it, he says.

While it may seem a pessimistic perspective, Jia says his own views about the changes in the mainland are not all gloomy. However, he has no interest in making films about the good news.

“I do have positive feelings about this economic change in China. Society becomes well-off and also more open.

“On the other hand I also start to notice the other kind of change brought by economic development. Often, the common people cannot really benefit from the economic [boom],” he says.

Jia’s other films – Platform (2000), Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004) and Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner Still Life (2006) – have not been given official release dates on the mainland, a situation that The Hollywood Reporter attributed not only to the movies’ controversial content, but to the idea that they are too “non-commercial” for the mainland movie circuit. But while his early films were deemed “underground”, in recent years Jia has been working with the censors – a move he was criticised for, but which he says does not compromise his artistic vision.

In fact, while he was initially required to submit his full script, for the past four years he has had to submit only two pages, he says. He admits this may be because, with 700 films shot on the mainland annually, the censors do not have time to read everything.

“I make the film first. I won’t think about censorship because I think the worst situation is when the director self censors,” he says. “So, every time I shoot a film, I am prepared for it to be my last. If I shoot a film to suit other people’s needs, it’s meaningless for me.

“Nowadays, the internet is very developed – once I shoot a film I think there are ways for people to see it.”

Jia says that after editing his film, he must show it to the censor and any requests for changes come to him first on paper. Some of those requested are minor, some are “kind of ridiculous”, while others are impossible to understand and have no impact on the integrity of the film, he says.

Nevertheless, he notes that  he can now negotiate with the state censors. “This is a big improvement. In the past there was no way you could negotiate; you had to make the changes,” he says.

The filmmaker hopes the movie’s recent award at Cannes will bring his films to the attention of people from other cultures. “I care more about whether a lot more people will see my film, that’s the thing I really care about,” he says.

Meanwhile, he has resumed work on a historical martial arts film he began in 2007 but which he postponed for other projects.

He is working with Hong Kong director Jenny To, and when it is finished, plans to shoot an espionage film in Hong Kong. Set in 1949, it will be about Communist Party and Kuomintang spies.