Jia Zhangke: why my films are received differently in China and abroad

After Chinese authorities left his previous film in limbo, director Jia Zhangke returns with a more emotional but less controversial project

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 October, 2015, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 10:49am

Jia Zhangke is one of the most critically acclaimed filmmakers working in China today but he isn't always appreciated at home. His works, which often remind audiences in China about the loss of humanity and absurd shift in identity accompanying the country's economic boom, are conceivably harder to digest.

The writer-director of modern classics such as Platform (2000) and Still Life (2006) has never been known for his blockbusting potential in the domestic box office. But Jia struck a new obstacle when his 2013 film, A Touch of Sin, was arbitrarily denied a release at home despite winning the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Marking his first attempt at overt screen violence, the film is based on true events and touches on issues of corruption, social injustice - even suicides at a large manufacturing plant. It evidently struck a raw nerve: although A Touch of Sin had passed the censors, Chinese authorities prohibited reporting on the film and placed it in distribution limbo.

At last month's Toronto International Film Festival, where he served on the jury of a new "Platform" section ("inspired by Jia's groundbreaking film" of the same title, according to the official programme), the 45-year-old director had no doubt about the reasons behind the authorities' sensitivity over A Touch of Sin.

"While the violence in that film is derived partly from human nature, it is also related to social problems that have arisen from China's rapid development," he says. "The connection between these violent incidents and the social issues might have made some people uncomfortable, and that made things contentious."

Against that pungent take on social disruption in China, his latest production - relationship drama Mountains May Depart - might appear to be a dramatic U-turn for Jia.

The new film has already garnered seven nominations for Taiwan's Golden Horse awards, due to be announced on November 21, including best picture, best director, best screenplay and best actress.

Mountains May Depart is confirmed for release in China on October 30 but Jia is quick to deny that he took on a less controversial project to avoid trouble with the authorities. "It's just that the subject of this film has more to do with emotions."

The tale starts in 1999, in Fenyang, Shanxi province, with a romantic triangle involving a woman played by Zhao Tao (Jia's wife and regular collaborator), and charts the central characters' journeys through life to 2014 and then to 2025 Australia. Vital decisions are made as China's capitalist drive shapes mindsets.

"What matters to me the most is the individual's place in the world when major changes are unfolding in the background," says Jia of his decades-spanning film.

"After making A Touch of Sin, I came to the astonishing realisation that people's values and outlook have really been affected by economic changes and technological shifts. Money isn't a suitable way to gauge our emotions, but it takes time to understand this."

Whether or not they make money, Jia is understandably pleased to see his films back on the big screen; his last work to be shown publicly in China was the documentary I Wish I Knew (2010). Yet the director is also aware of the contrasting receptions his films have received from international and local audiences.

"I think the main factor is our different perceptions of the current reality [in China]," says Jia of audiences in China. "It's whether they can agree with the reality presented in my films. There was a dramatic shift in 2008 when nationalism began to rear its head. [It is promulgated] that China cannot have problems; that artists cannot reflect on China's problems; that China is a happy society without a tinge of sadness," he says.

"But as an artist, my biggest concern is not whether the country is happy. What interests me are the experiences that we're having as human beings."

Revealing the romantic in him, Jia reckons modernisation in China has robbed its people of the exquisite experience of longing.

"The Chinese people have now lost the sense of yearning between lovers, which was the most romantic aspect of Chinese poetry. When there was no high-speed rail, no highway, no private car, no mobile phone and no internet, even if you were just 100km apart, [you felt like] the person you love was very far away. Now, all you need to do is to pick up your mobile phone," he says, laughing.

Globalisation is a recurrent subject that has informed some of Jia's best films, most notably The World, but Mountains is not a continuation of this theme although it's partly set in Australia. "I feel that by 2025, we'll be in a thoroughly globalised state already. It's not like 10 years ago, when a lot of things had just been imported into China and they caused big shocks," says Jia.

Turning to the new wave of emigration in China, he says: "In the past, there were regions - like Fujian, Wenzhou, Guangdong and Hong Kong - where emigration had been quite common. It didn't happen often in northern China, where I'm from, but in recent years a lot of families have left for better education for their children, or because of the air pollution. This has a big impact on my heart."

Mountains' initial setting in Fenyang - Jia's hometown, which also formed the backdrop to his early features, including Xiao Wu (1997) - suggest a personal nature to the stories but he says that is not so.

"The most personal aspect of the film may be its last segment, set in Australia," he says. "That was based on my own imagination of the future, through my own feelings about the world today. I'm here imagining the problems that future teenagers will face.

"When I was young, the Cultural Revolution had just ended and every family was struggling with a lack of money and food. But in 2025, I think the problem everyone will face is the question of personal freedom. Do you have the freedom to control your own emotions and deal with your own problems?"

As an artist, my biggest concern is not whether or not the country is happy. What interests me are the experiences that we're having as human beings
Jia Zhangke

Yet Jia reiterates his usual spiel that he's happy with his circumstances in China and denies that he found more creative freedom shooting in Australia.

"I think I do have freedom to make my own films in China," he argues. "I don't pay attention to other things [outside the filmmaking process]. I believe I should convey my ideas with all their integrity."

Jia's next directorial effort is set to be In the Qing Dynasty, his long-gestating venture into wuxia martial arts fantasy, a time-honoured genre in Chinese cinema that was most recently explored by fellow auteurs Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, respectively in The Grandmaster (2013) and The Assassin (2015).

"I hope my film is different from theirs," Jia says. "Based on my understanding of both wuxia films and the past [history of China], there are some ideas that I have yet to see in those films."

Besides weaving in his ideas about space and time, the film will look into "the relationship between a person's fate and the times he lives in" - in this case the intellectuals set adrift by abolition of China's imperial examination system in 1905.

But with Jia's track record, it is almost inevitable that In the Qing Dynasty will be perceived as a political allegory of contemporary China.

Mountains May Depart screens October 28 as the opening film at Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and goes on general release on November 5.



An auteur's vision: five films to watch

For audiences unfamiliar with Jia Zhangke's oeuvre, here are five films to watch:

Platform (2000) Jia was officially barred from making films in January 1999, but that didn't stop him from taking a panoramic view with this Fenyang-inspired second feature - his first to feature actress Zhao Tao. With deadpan humour, Jia charts the country's policy shifts between 1979 and 1989 through the life of a touring song-and-dance troupe.

The World (2004) Jia's first film made with government approval, this postmodern drama set in a real-life Beijing theme park delves into his signature subject of globalisation, pitting the park's disengaged staff against miniature replicas of landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the World Trade Center.

Still Life (2006) Reportedly written by Jia over three days, this Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival tells the desolate stories of two people looking for their spouses working around the giant Three Gorges Dam project. There are inspired touches of surrealism that come across as commentaries on China's rapid transformation.

24 City (2008) While Jia has made several documentaries, this documentary/fiction hybrid has attracted the most critical attention. What began as an oral testimony about a redeveloped factory in Chengdu turned into a metafictional meditation on progress and memories that involve both actual witnesses and famous actors.

A Touch of Sin (2013) The best screenplay winner at the Cannes Film Festival, this is also Jia's most overtly controversial film to date. Inspired by stories of grave injustices that he gleaned from social media, it is a relentlessly violent and bleak drama that follows four individuals who are, in their own desperate ways, being pushed to their limits beneath the society's affluent facade.