Jia Zhangke has been called one of the most important filmmakers in the world by Richard Brody of The New Yorker and John Powers of NPR. This isn’t just because his films are well made. Jia occupies an interesting place in contemporary Chinese cinema as an artist and social critic. He’s a prominent member of the so-called Sixth Generation, a group of underground directors who made their movies on low budgets and outside of government censors. Since his fourth film, 2004’s The World, Jia has released his work through the normal film bureaucracy, and yet his social consciousness hasn’t faltered. 2008’s 24 City blended documentary footage with fictional elements in order to explore China’s economic and cultural history in a manner that breaks from the official historical narrative of the Communist Party.
In A Touch of Sin (now playing in New York and opening in Los Angeles this Friday), Jia turns his lens on four loosely connected vignettes, each inspired by an actual event. It’s a fascinating collage of the country as it continues to progress while simultaneously leaving many of its citizen behind. The result of such disparities is violence. The film won Best Screenplay at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Last week I had a chance to speak with Jia Zhangke and his wife Zhao Tao (star of several of his films, including A Touch of Sin) while they were in town for the New York Film Festival.
[For the next few weeks, we’ll be covering the 2013 New York Film Festival, now in its 51st year. Flixist will provide you with reviews, video, news, and features on some of the best films on the festival circuit. To check out all of our coverage of NYFF51, click here.]
I’ve heard that A Touch of Sin is coming out in China in November. What has the process been like with the censors and have there been any compromises?
Jia Zhangke: For Chinese films to pass through censorship and enter into theatrical release, there are two steps. The first one is before you begin principle photography, before you even begin production. You need to have official sign-off on the script, story, and premise of the work. And then after the completion of the film, there is another step where you enter into negotiation for another level of approval. So that second step was completed before we left for Cannes. We waited for a few weeks and we learned that it was approved.
Obviously you can’t tell the future, but how do you think the film will be received when Chinese audiences see it?
Jia Zhangke: I believe there will be a lot of discussions formed after people view this film in China. Perhaps the arguments will separate into two different poles for discussion.
One is that because of the complexities and the different layers of Chinese society and social realities, only parts become visible at once to the individual, so people cannot see a whole picture. So the emergence of violent events such as those in the film emerge from this complexity. And the other point of discussion comes from the perception of how art functions in Chinese society. For instance, many people will say, “Why did you make this?” and “To what end are going for with with work of art?” There’s a question of what art does in society.
But of course I’m very much looking forward to the film finding its audience in Mainland China because to me this film represents part of the missing picture to these events.
So many of your films are socially conscious. Expanding on the previous question, can you both speak about what being a socially conscious artist in China means to you.
Jia Zhangke: This is inextricable from my life in China. When I make a film, it comes from a very personal place. Living in China and having encountered and lived through the Cultural Revolution, working within such a state of change and flux — both in the economy and society — inevitably alters the way that you work. So in order for me to work on a personal level, the art cannot be separated from a social level. On a deep personal level, we cannot help but be radically affected by these social and economic changes.
And Zhao Tao? As an actress in socially conscious films?
Zhao Tao: Through collaborating with director Jia, I feel that we expressed a world, a society, that was facing many changes. And personally having grown up in a working-class family, working together on these films was a way to get a scope on these larger, changing social realities. But through and actor’s perspective, I expressed these through my body.
One of the most memorable scenes in A Touch of Sin is at the sauna when you’re being beaten with a stack of money. Could you talk about the scene?
Zhao Tao: The difficulty came in collaborating with other actors in this very long take. So from the moment that the two men enter into the room to after the beating happens, that’s one long take. It had to be conveyed through body language mostly, so it was difficult to work with that constriction. On screen, I was beaten 38 times, and we filmed for six hours, so the pain that was felt was very palpable for me on a very physical level.
I wanted it to be a visceral reaction; the performance to be a viscerral performance. Jia said after the 20th blow I could turn away and we could stop, but I wanted to continue in order to feel this anger and to be pushed to this point where violence seems like the only logical response. And it appears that I made the right decision because that part of the performance in that scene seems to have affected people very deeply.
There was a point when I wondered when the beating was going to stop! It’s remarkably effective. That does get to the idea of violence as a last resort or an only resort. Could you talk about violence in the context of the film as well as in human nature in general.
Jia Zhangke: I wanted to explore a deep contemplation of two factors. One is the social roots of violence and the second is violence that has its roots in a very human level.
Perhaps the most extreme form of violence is to take away a person’s pride or dignity with your violence, and to make it worse is when it becomes unconsciously manifested. Perhaps this unconscious violence is worse than getting hit in the face directly. For instance, the character Dahai (Wu Jiang) in the first story. He acquires a nickname partway through that segment, which is “Golf,” because when he’s beat up at the airport, he’s beat up with a golf club. And this is actually a way to insidiously take someone’s pride away, which is very violent in its nature.
And there’s the man who beats up Zhao Tao’s character with a stack of cash, who thinks that money is the ultimate weapon, which can solve every problem. Maybe these are very insidious, violent accumulations of innate tendencies of people. And perhaps, ultimately in the last story, the form of violence that’s invisible is when the mother makes the phone call to the son and makes those demands of him. To me, this is a violence that comes from the family — from the people who should be dearest to you.
Do you think there’s any way to end the cycle of violence as presented in the movie?
Jia Zhangke: I think the film serves to describe and observe these events because that forms a kind of necessary platform to change. In our current social reality in China, I think we need to have a deeper focus on respecting other people and respecting one another’s freedom and pride.
On a global level, violence is a collective problem for everyone, and in order to see behind that and get to the root of these problems is the key to promoting a kind of change. But we have to come to acknowledge these invisible forces that accumulate and manifest themselves into acts of violence.
This might simply be a restatement of the last point, but how do you hope these platforms for recognition will bring about change? [Editor’s note: After fumbling through a few versions of this on-the-fly question with the interpreter, I finally arrived at this more succinct version of the question.]
Jia Zhangke: I think that the film itself will not offer any singular solutions or a prescriptive plan for change, nor is it the role of a director to prescribe such a plan. But the key is for the film to spur people’s ideas about possible avenues of change. I think the film serves to describe our current experiences today.
I remember reading that wuxia films had influenced your approach to this movie. When did the wuxia genre come in in terms of approach to these stories?
Jia Zhangke: Well, it was about last year around April that I realized that the wuxia mode could be applied to this film because I’d wanted to make this film a while before, but there was no form of filmmaking that excited me in terms of applying it to these stories. But then I noticed that there were distinct parallelisms between the wuxia narrative and the people in this film. Even though wuxia films describe stories that come from a feudal era, I thought that I could apply them to a contemporary context.
Did it affect your performance at all knowing there was a wuxia focus?
Zhao Tao: When I first received the script, [Zhangke said] he wanted to be able to distinguish a certain spirit of a wuxia heroine in Xiao Yu’s character. To prepare for the role I watched a lot of wuxia films, and I noticed the female characters wielded their swords and had this sense of heroism.
I imbued this kind of energy to my character in the scene when I’m walking through the mountains to find my mom — just by walking. And the notion of wuxia is manifested in Xiao Yu in sort of mystical way. When she endures the violent event that turns her into a tragic figure, and she reacts to it with an act of violence, that’s when she transforms into a wuxia heroine.
As a final question, I remember hearing that social media such as Weibo helped the film get made and perhaps even helped secure its upcoming Chinese release. [Editor’s note: Weibo is a Chinese microblogging and social media website.] What hopes do you have for social media in China’s future?
Jia Zhangke: Weibo brought a sense of democracy to the way that news is transmitted in China and received. So for instance, events that could have been obscured or would have been obscured by official newspapers in the past are no longer obscured because of social media. It made it impossible to hide certain social realities that exist in China. So the existence of Weibo eliminated one basic question for this film, which was “Did this really happen in China?” Weibo gave the stories a validity that was irrefutable.