There are a number of questions raised by Jia Zhang-ke’s “A Touch of Sin,” but it was clear what the most pressing one was when the Chinese auteur was asked at the film’s Toronto Film Festival premiere last month, “How did you get this past the censors?” (An equally mystified Jia replied, “I’d like to ask them the same thing.”)
Perhaps that’s the only thing more surprising than the random acts of violence that are peppered throughout Jia’s elegant, incendiary new film, comprised of four interlocking stories that are as much about people’s capacity for cruelty as they are about the rapidly changing landscape of China where the widening gap between old and modern society has given way to a radically different value system and eruptions of brutality.
Ironically, the rise of a new China may actually have paved the way for the longtime indie filmmaker’s first studio production, financed in part by the state-run Shanghai Film Group, in addition to inspiring “A Touch of Sin.” But the film is uncompromising in telling the tales of a villager (Jiang Wu) whose cries of local government corruption go unheard, a motorcycle-riding desperado (Wang Baoquing) forced into thieving by the new economy, a receptionist at a spa center (Zhao Tao) who is mistaken for a prostitute by an entitled customer and a twentysomething sweatshop worker who drifts from one exploitative job to another after causing an unfortunate accident at his first gig.
With action sequences filmed in the tradition of wu xia martial arts epics, “A Touch of Sin” allows Jia to apply the kind of cinematic flourishes that he’s restrained himself from in recent years while making films such as “24 City” and “Still Life,” which blurred the lines between narrative and reality. Yet still it is the incisive insight on modern-day China that pierce the skin as much as any of the bullets or blades that fly in “A Touch of Sin” and while he was in Toronto, the writer/director spoke to me with the aid of a translator to talk about how he based the film on real-life events, why he took no pleasure in filming action sequences and his realization that wu xia films were more than just escapism.
Were all of the storylines based on specific incidents?
Yes, the four stories all have specific background in particular Chinese news events. The earliest news story was in 2003, then the most recent one was one year ago and these real people and real events inspired the starting point for each one of the stories.
I understand you read a lot about these on Weibo [a Chinese version of Twitter]. Did that shape how you wanted to structure the film?
With Weibo, the most important thing was the immediacy, the timing and the details that I was able to discern from the online discussions. It was a measure of public interest upon these events and also the divide of pragmatic responses – for instance, trying to discern the origins of why and how things happened — and the non-pragmatic, which are very emotional and people responding, for instance, like “Oh, the other guy should’ve stabbed him back too.”
One of the most interesting things to me in the film is the lack of response to violence – in many of the scenes, the bystanders simply go about their business. How much of a surreal feeling did you want, not only to the act of violence, but to the response to it?
Indeed, the degree of violence and the extremity of violence makes us pay attention and curious as to what happened. In the beginning of the process of filming, one of the questions was if or how to describe the process of this violence and I decided to do that. One reason being is that if we do not discuss and face up to the violence in its details then we cannot move on. Perhaps the second reason being that in the history of Chinese cinema, there has never been a head-on approach to portraying such direct acts of violence. Perhaps if there had been, say 100 years history of looking at these issues head-on, then I would’ve been more oblique in my approach and aesthetic. But of course, we’ve all never experienced these acts ourselves and so much of the process had to be imaginary. And of course, they have to occur when we don’t expect it, so there’s an element of immediacy and chance. In filming that, that’s where the surrealism came in.
Did you feel you could be a more emotional filmmaker with this subject?
Yes, I wish to because despite not having gone through anything and not understanding what it is that they’re going through [directly], there’s an incredible degree of empathy. In creating these characters, it was impossible to not be emotional. But of course, I don’t condone or agree with the way the characters resolve their [issues] with violence, so this is a tragedy.
Even though it is a tragic subject matter, was it interesting to apply your filmmaking skills to action sequences? Your wife [Zhao Tao], who appears in the film, said at TIFF that it was thrilling to act out such a scene.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be the same for the director as the characters in feeling the thrill of acting. The director feels the pain of suffering… [laughs] Because I’m standing off to the side and looking through the viewfinder and not like the actors who are using their bodies to express and act this out, so they have a more visceral reaction to what is happening. For instance, the scene in which Zhao Tao finally pulls out the knife to kill the person, originally, the intention was to shoot the scene without [the man in the spa] really hitting her. Then she requested that she’d be really hit in order to find the strength and the energy to pull out the knife. So of course, there’s a corresponding excitement that comes with that for the actor.
You were describing the history of Wu xia films – when did you discover they might not just be passive entertainment, but that they could be used to express the political times they were made in?
In high school in Shanxi, my hometown, China began to have screening rooms that were different from cinema houses that screened Taiwanese and Hong Kong wu xia films. That was my first exposure, then in the ’90s when I spent four years in the Beijing Film Academy, I acquired a new understanding, after the six years of having seen these for entertainment, of the political dimensions of these films. For instance, the characters in King Hu’s films are people who have all endured political corruption from their families. And during the time he was making these films, the cultural revolution was proceeding in mainland China in which there was much political corruption. So for me, wu xia films have become a way for Chinese people to allegorize the politics of the country.
Do you see it as a sign of progress that China has cleared this film for distribution and helped make it through the Shanghai Film Group?
Yes, it’s definitely an optimistic sign that all of our efforts to make this progress have yielded some results. And perhaps these are issues that everyone has become aware of and have been brought to life for everyone, but now it is about how to understand these issues. I hope to be able to aid in the return of cinema as a true artform.
Your films are always so urgent. Because China’s changing so rapidly, do you ever worry while making a film that it may not be up to date by the time it comes out?
I never worry about this. For instance, in “Still Life,” the village that is portrayed only took one year to be dismantled and such a radical change in landscape stays within the spirit and hearts of the people. The spirit of the cultural revolution… the memories of that stay with people despite the fact that the events happened very long ago. You could say that the events themselves are an expression of why we need to pay more attention to our surroundings.
How did you get interested in filmmaking in the first place?
In the past, I was searching for a mode of expression for myself and I wrote poetry and literature, but I found that literature was unfulfilling because each person has different needs for their art. I began painting and then I saw Chen Kaige’s “Yellow Earth” and that to me expressed a new form of possibilities for cinema that I was not aware of before.
“A Touch of Sin” opens at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York on October 4th and the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on October 11th. A full list of dates and theaters for the rest of the country can be found here.