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“I Don’t Have to Pick Up a Gun, I Can Just Pick Up a Camera:” Jia Zhangke on A Touch Of Sin

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“I really want to say that we are all connected,” Jia Zhangke said Monday night. “This is our issue.” If that makes his latest film, A Touch Of Sin, sound like some sort of Chinese Crash redux, it’s just a quirk of phrasing: the connection Zhangke’s thinking of is an epidemic of violence in China, which he describes as a response of the economically dispossessed trying to reclaim some form of dignity. Viewed as isolated actions, the four violent incidents dramatized in A Touch Of Sin might seem like singular occurrences; stitched together, they’re obviously connected symptoms of Chinese society in painful, often corrupt transition from a command to market economy.

Zhangke was at Asia Society Monday with his wife/muse/perpetual lead actress Zhao Tao to discuss his newest film. It begins with an unnervingly entertaining sequence: In Zhangke’s home region of Shanxi, fed-up villager Dahei (Jiang Wu) has his attempts to report the corruption of village chief repeatedly and violently foiled. “Your life belongs to you,” an old friend tells him. “Stop caring what others do.” Instead, Dahei wraps a gun in a tiger flag, the illustrated animal’s growl heard on the soundtrack. The subsequent killing spree is undertaken with similarly blunt symbolism from start to finish. A horse is savagely whipped by its farmer master before that unjust tyrant gets shot too and the animal runs free: there’s only so long you can whip a workhorse/worker before it can’t bear it anymore. Unlike the unfortunately blunt symbolism of last year’s Killing Them Softly — where every airport and bar had TVs broadcasting a loop of the 2008 presidential campaign or bad economic news — this isn’t a case of implausibly jamming in double-underlined symbolism where it doesn’t belong. Instead, Jia’s highlighting what’s plausibly present and making its double-meaning impossible to miss, just as A Touch Of Sin hopes to do overall.

After this unnervingly exhilarating opening, A Touch Of Sin jaggedly slips into a variety of different rhythms harder to instantly acclimate to. Heading southwest to Chongqing for his second story, Jia revisits the river territory of 2006’s Still Life, when the Three Gorges Dam (whose construction displaced 1.5 million) was still under construction. The third story’s set in central Hubei and the last in southern Dongguan, with the geographical sprawl modeled on traditional Chinese landscape painting. As Jia explained, the film moves through time with equally deliberate logic: the first story takes place just before the annual Spring Festival (when migrant laborers return home to visit their families), the second during it, the third right after and the fourth long after.

The last death in A Touch Of Sin [SPOILER, though it’s not that kind of movie] is a suicide committed by a factory worker living in company dorms. Capitalism may be the true killer, acting even without an external human agent. The final shot is of an audience watching the Chinese opera Wild Boar Forest. “Do you understand your sin?” an actor cries, with the passive audience full of blank-faced spectators who themselves may be close to the snapping point, simultaneously complicit in what we’ve seen and potentially aggrieved victims themselves.

Many of Jia’s films have been about bluntly binary social divides: think of Still Life, its focus divided between one of the poor workmen working on demolishing houses for the Dam and the wife of one of the businessmen profiting from it, or 2007’s Useless, a hybrid beginning as a fiction about a worker before switching midway to a documentary portrait of fashion designer Ma Ke. 2008’s 24 City and 2010’s I Wish I Knew examined social change through oral testimony, offering some kind of continuity and shared experience probed by individual speakers, but A Touch Of Sin is all rupture all the time, from its separate stories (linked by overlapping characters but unfolding from isolated causes-and-effects) to its always-unexpected violent acts.

“As someone who was born in the ‘70s and witnessed what happened in the past 30 years and really wanted to use all my films to capture all the changes and rapid transformations we are witnessing in China,” Jia explained, “that culture I grew up in, it was such a collectivist and authoritarian society, we lost a sense of self. That sense of self is what we need to reclaim. That sense of self is what they reclaim at the moment of violence, at least for a very brief moment.” Before beginning production on A Touch Of Sin, Jia was going to make a straight-up period wuxia (martial-arts film), something he still intends to do. Below, some highlights from the conversation explaining how A Touch Of Sin is its own kind of wuxia, how China’s Twitter-esque micro-blogging platform Weibo has influenced social change, and his newfound fondness for animals:

On A Touch Of Sin as a wuxia film

Having learned of these four tragic events, I had been thinking about how can I actually find a way to capture these stories. It’s not until recently that I realized that a lot of things observed in these events that you can also see parallels in the wuxia genre in films by directors such as Chang Cheh or King Hu. I thought this is such a great way that I had found the right film language to depict these stories by using this genre to present these wuxia characters in contemporary China. Of course, these stories make me very very sad. These stories that happened a long time ago, in the Song Dynasty and classic novels set in that era, and in King Hu’s films set in the Ming Dynasty. So I thought that it’s very sad that these things continue and still exist.

In all these classical wuxia films, usually you have an individual in a society that is full of unrest, injustice and inequality, and they somehow resort to violence to try to to solve their problems or to face the difficulty that they have been experiencing, and it usually ends in tragedy. And therefore last year I felt so compelled to put all my projects aside to really start making this film because I suddenly realized I have the film language and vocabulary to tell the story and also capture the pain that I am experiencing, understanding not only the connection between wuxia and the stories I am going to tell but how these stories still persist.

On his use of Wild Boar Forest and migrant workers:

Lin Chong is a character that has been oppressed for many, many years and in many, many instances. He couldn’t stand it anymore and one snowy night he decided to escape, to run off. This idea of running off or eternal migration is the reality I’m trying to capture. Whenever you see people in train stations or different ports or on the streets, you can see that these people are migrating, they are wandering around for their life, and you can see the migration from north to south, from inland to the coastal areas, and this constant flow of people somehow reminds me of this particular character. In order for you to make a living and survive is to wander around, to roam around. I do think these stories are about this idea of escape, of wanting to escape from something.

On censorship and Weibo:

A lot of people were concerned when I started making this film last year, including my producers and creative team. Their concern was that if you look at contemporary Chinese film history, this type of film depicting contemporary China in such a violent way is unprecedented. There are two major reasons I insisted on making on this film. I feel so compelled, I must do this, because knowing what’s going on, what’s happening. If I don’t do this and express this through my films, it just doesn’t sit well with me. I decided to find a way to make this happen, and this is something that I put a lot of thought into. One of the major characters is my wife, Zhao Tao. So I’m sure that we share that the same concerns that we talked about: “Well, let’s just sort of see this as my last film,” and that I can spend my time with my dogs and be with my family and I don’t have to make another film. I’ve already prepared myself that possibly this might be the last time I make films that I make films in China or that could be shown in China.

This type of film should be passed to actually capture the violence in contemporary Chinese society through the eyes of a filmmaker. To me I really think that because of Weibo, because of this new type of media, a lot of people have media outlets to actually become reporters of these stories. For instance, I mentioned that these stories are something very well known already in China, and it has been widely reported by mainstream media, including newspapers and magazine. So I thought to myself, what difference does it make if the news reporter can actually pick up this story? Why can’t I, as a filmmaker, also pick up this story and depict the reality, because the reality is the same? Whether or not from the reporter’s perspective or the filmmaker’s perspective, it should be just the same. It should be acceptable and should be allowed.

I think that the presence of Weibo really changed the way we know reality in China. Before Weibo, I think these type of instances, I think people tended think either they were made up or they were just isolated instances. But now we have Weibo, and every other day when you log on you see something that is happening everywhere in China. Although we have access to these news and events, we don’t have a true or deep understanding of the violence involved. So to me, I think this is something you cannot cover up, you cannot avoid. This is a reality already known by millions of people in China, and there’s no point for censors to actually ban the release of a film like this.

One of the censors told me in private that, “Personally speaking, I really like this film.” When you say “Personally speaking,” you should just stick to that. You should just be one you. You should not separate your personality into two different people when you are doing your job. So I think that’s one of the reasons why this film hasn’t been censored.

This film was shown in Cannes after May, and after I returned in May I noticed that more instances happened since the showing in Cannes, including a shaman actually burned a bus and also a young man from Shandong province actually detonated an explosive in Beijing airport. So I think that it’s time for us to start looking into the source of violence and find a solution for it. Of course I understand that violence has something to do with society and human nature. And to me, an element is about human dignity, and the moment of violence is normally about dignity and someone trying to reclaim that lost dignity.

On animals and whether that horse was getting whipped for real:

In the past, I didn’t pay that much attention to animals, but since I have a dog, suddenly I have newfound respect and I try to pay more attention to them. I do think that we tend to be more sensitive to interpersonal violence, and we tend not to pay attention to the violence that we use against animals or nature. The way we cut down trees, the way we pollute our trees, we are the perpetrators of that violence.

That horse is very famous, that horse is a star horse. It was the trainer who was whipping the horse. So he will give the horse a certain command, and the horse will act. But it’s hard to train the trainers to become someone who can act. So I had a hard time training this trainer to fall when he got shot.

On technology’s pervasiveness in China:

Young people definitely love those digital devices, and very likely they are the ones who are producing those devices on an assembly line. I’ve been noticing that in terms of digital devices and use of the internet, young people in Asia are probably using those a lot more than Western youth. When I was in my hometown, there were a lot of internet cafes, but when I went to Paris I didn’t really see something like that. It is definitely a sort of fascination that a lot of young Chinese people have. These young people understand how the wealth is being spread very unevenly in society, so at least they want to have some kind of equality in the way they consume information.

Behind that there’s also a sense of survival instincts, because they’re facing a lot of crises in their real life. During the past 30 years, of course, you have these drastic changes in society. For a lot of young people, they’ll think that in order to keep pace with changes, they need to be on top of information so that they won’t be left behind. They don’t want to be left behind in their own environment if they don’t check their email for three days or don’t use their mobile phone for two days. So when you go to the airport, you can see a lot of people holding on to their electronic devices or mobile phone so tightly. They will be checking them regularly and frequently, because this could be a job opportunity, this could be a shout-out from a friend. This is a very fast society and they need to be just as fast.

On violence:

It’s essential in order for us to stop the violence from perpetuating. Also we need to rebel against the restraints and also the restraints and restrictions we have on directors. This is way for me to rebel against these things, is to make films. I really thank God that I have film in my life. I don’t have to pick up a gun, I can just pick up a camera.

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