Chinese actor Luo Lanshan, director Jia Zhangke and his wife actress Zhao Tao in Cannes. Photo: AFP

Iran’s Farhadi and China’s Jia make Cannes splash

Two directors from countries with tough film censorship brought bold and probing movies to the Cannes Film Festival on Friday — one exploring China’s social problems, the other delving into the mysteries of the human heart.

Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” depicts facets of fast-changing China that the government prefers to avoid: corruption, greed, violent crime and the growing gap between economic winners and losers.

“The Past,” by Academy Award-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, is an unsparing tale of domestic upheaval, set in and around Paris and made with a largely French cast.

Both films are competing for Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or — and both have been cleared for release in their homelands, where filmmakers often fall foul of restrictions.

Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has approved “The Past” for screening, and “A Touch of Sin” is due to open in China in the fall.

The two directors are pleased their films will be seen at home, but they gave very different descriptions of working in settings where official censorship is an everyday reality.

“I’m someone who is deeply attached to my creative freedom, and I always do my utmost to ensure I don’t indulge in any form of self-censorship,” said Jia, who has explored China’s rapid transformation throughout his career — from early underground films such as “Unknown Pleasures” to documentaries to the Venice Film Festival prize-winning 2006 feature “Still Life.”

Farhadi, though, said the effect of censorship was more insidious.

“One can try to free oneself of the past, but the past doesn’t let you do that,” he said — both a theme of “The Past” and an observation of his own situation.

“There are two kinds of censorship,” he told reporters. “You have official censorship which works in a certain way. But there is also self-censorship. You impose it on your innermost self.”

Iran’s authorities have long had an uneasy relationship with the country’s filmmakers, and influential clerics have often denounced the domestic cinema as dominated by Western-tainted liberals and political dissenters. Some directors and actors have faced arrest or fled the country.

While Farhadi shot previous films including “A Separation” — the 2012 foreign-language Oscar winner — in Iran, “The Past” was made entirely outside the country. It follows an Iranian man (actor-director Ali Mosaffa), who returns to France to finalize a divorce from his ex (Berenice Bejo, from “The Artist”), but soon becomes entangled again with her, her children and her new love (”A Prophet” star Tahar Rahim).

The film premiered at Cannes Friday and was hailed as the first Palme d’Or contender of the festival. Critics praised its meticulous and non-judgmental look at the messy effects of relationships and their breakdown, on adults and on children.

Farhadi admitted that he felt “more secure” shooting outside Iran, free of external restrictions — but not of his own inner guidelines. He said he tried to see these “not as an obstacle but as an asset” — part of his creative makeup as a director.

Like his previous work, “The Past” is emotionally revealing but not overtly political. The director said he was happy to keep working on an intimate canvas, exploring the dynamics of personal relationships.

“There is so much suffering and pain attached to a couple, but the suffering and pain is always unique,” he said. “I could spend my whole career exploring this theme without ever exhausting it.”

Farhadi said he doesn’t know what he will make next — or whether it will be in Iran.

“I won’t decide where it will take place,” he said. “It’s history that will decide for me.”

In contrast, “A Touch of Sin” feels strongly political. Made up of four linked episodes focusing on uprooted citizens of the new China, its storylines have been ripped from the headlines. There’s a villager driven to violence by official corruption; an amoral killer roaming the land; a factory worker driven to suicide.

Jia — whose film “24 City” played at Cannes in 2008 — said he became preoccupied by the increasingly frequent stories of violence he saw in the media, and wanted to dramatize the stories for Chinese moviegoers.

“In society people often hear about these violent events, but they quickly forget,” he said. “It’s not by turning your back on violence or hiding violence that you make progress.”

Jia said he didn’t think the topics he depicted “are particularly touchy or secretive in any way, because they were already covered in the Chinese press and on the Internet.”

But the director also was careful to stress — and the censors no doubt happy to hear — that the stories were timeless, not the product of modern politics, economics or technology.

“If these people were alive 100, 200, 300 years ago, at the time of the emperors, their motivation for acting like that would be exactly the same,” he said. “We live in the era of the Internet and high-speed trains, but have people changed?”