'Violent' and 'controversial' are provocative terms that don't seem to faze Jia Zhangke when talking about his latest film, A Touch of Sin (2013) (on DVD and Blu-ray this week). But the ex-breakdancer turned prolific Chinese filmmaker has a relaxed air about him. He greeted us for this interview with a friendly "Hello" in English. Like many Chinese film directors who've experienced a difficult relationship with the censors, Jia is no stranger to having the word 'controversy' slapped all over his work. The trajectory of his entire output has been laden with stories of censorship and struggles with domestic distribution, from the underground filming of his first three films (known as his 'Hometown Trilogy') to A Touch of Sin's sudden withdrawal from last month's China Film Directors' Guild Awards.
A Touch of Sin is proof that the State has allowed greater artistic freedom in recent years. But despite being approved by the Chinese censorship board, the film has yet to receive distribution in China (where it's now easily available on pirated discs).
Despite his lack of presence in China's own cinemas, Jia quickly became an icon of Chinese independent cinema after his debut film Pickpocket (1997), about a young man set adrift in reform era China, was selected for the Berlin Film Festival. After watching, Martin Scorsese told a then 30-year-old Jia that he had "reinvented cinema". How did he feel about this? "The film reminded Martin a lot of his uncle when he was young", he tells us. "That made me feel very proud. Because to me that is the beauty of cinema, when people can relate to it on a very personal level." A Touch of Sin is made up of four vaguely linked stories based on recent incidents of violence and corruption in China. This includes a vigilante revenge mission, a murderous act of self defence, and an act of extreme violence carried out by a bank robber because he was 'bored'. Although the film re-enacts real-life events, it's also embellished with flashes of surrealism. What was the reasoning?
Still Life (2006). The film was made in Fengjie, a city with a 3000-year-old history. When I arrived the whole city had been torn down and demolished, I was very shocked to see that scene, and I couldn't envision it as something humans could do to a place. My first reaction was that the city had been attacked by aliens from outer space. Or maybe some nuclear weapon had exploded there. To me that is a very surrealistic reality." So is surrealism key to A Touch of Sin's real-life events? "When I was making the film I was wondering how I could visualise all those scenes of violence, because none of us had actually experienced it, and the people who had, obviously can't make a film about it. To me the best way of doing this was to use surrealism."
Despite the film being considered a departure for Jia in terms of its use of explicit violence, the potential for violence has lurked in the background of all of his films. He describes the final scene in Pickpocket when the protagonist is handcuffed by police to a post in the village square for everyone to see, "That's a huge social violence to the character", he explains. "In my previous films the characters' way of dealing with violence in their daily lives is quite heavily influenced by traditional Confucius ideas of endurance. In A Touch of Sin, these ordinary people begin to respond to violence with violence. This is as an obvious change in terms of ordinary people's attitude from endurance of the violence directed against them, to fighting against it. The kind of destruction caused by this is huge." A positive spin on vigilante revenge this may appear, but one suspects that's not the case.
A Touch of Sin creates a similar paradoxical space of mobility and stasis. Jia explains this: "You notice mobility and moving as a preference in my films. This comes part from my childhood experience; I was born in 1970 when the Cultural Revolution was still going on. At first people couldn't travel due to poverty, and also most people were confined to the land they were born because anywhere you go you need authorisation from the government. Throughout my childhood I felt like I was trapped in that space, so travelling was my dream. For Chinese people, to be on the move, and to be 'going away' is a constant action. All your life chances and opportunity exist in that move."
One character trapped in this mobility in A Touch of Sin is Sanming, a worker who appears briefly in the first story set in a coal-mining town. The quiet protagonist of Still Life, Sanming (played by the actor Sanming Han) made his first appearance as a man who signs a life and death contract in Platform (2000). So why does this character constantly reappear in Jia's films yet never seems to change? "The reason I kept Sanming always as Sanming, is because to me, he is a real person, a real existence. In my efforts to try and approach reality and truth, Sanming is the cornerstone that holds me there." This evokes of a section from Jia's book, A Collective Memory of the Chinese Working Class, in which, with reference to the Lumière brothers, he describes the importance of 'the worker' being the first character to be portrayed on film. For Jia, sensationalist violence or not, it's clear his heart lies with ordinary Chinese people, whom his films are not just about but for.
A Touch of Sin is out now on DVD and Blu-ray. To read our five-star DVD review of the film, simply follow this link.