Tag Archives: Chinese cinema

A Touch of Sin: Interview with Jia Zhang-ke

A Touch of Sin

Format: Cinema

Dates: 16 May 2014

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Jia Zhang-ke

Writer: Jia Zhang-ke

Original title: Tian zhu ding

Cast: Jiang Wu, Luo Lanshan, Meng Li

China 2013

133 mins

Although director Jia Zhang-ke denies that his close relationship with Office Kitano involves more than financial support, the ferocious A Touch of Sin is very much in the same vein as the Japanese director’s best films, albeit intensified by the social-political backdrop addressed here. Based on four real-life criminal cases (including a murder, a suicide and a couple of killing sprees), Zhang-ke’s story represents a cross section of contemporary Chinese society, in different areas of the country. Seen from that perspective, the film is a sanguinary, tense investigation into the Chinese economic miracle and the brutalising effect it has on the lives of ordinary people at the bottom of the ladder. In a world not theirs, they ultimately can’t help but vent their rage, rising up against authority. On a visual level, A Touch of Sin is a powerful war of the senses, in the way the stylised violence seems aligned with the characters’ innermost thoughts and emotions, enabling the audience to savour a similar cold adrenaline rush to that of the wuxia and Lady Vengeance-type characters on screen.

Pamela Jahn talked to the director at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where the film deservedly won Zhang-ke the award for Best Screenplay.

Pamela Jahn: Your film is based on four real-life criminal incidents in China. How did you become aware of them?

Jia Zhang-ke: In recent years, all these violent events have been publicised through social media platforms in China, and then they were widely discussed in the printed press too. But in the film I fictionalised everything, so it doesn’t really matter if the audience knows about the real-life events and what really happened.

What was your biggest challenge in making the film?

For me the biggest challenges were the action parts, because I am not used to shooting action to that extent. So I had to ask myself questions like: how should a character shoot, or use a knife? How should the victims fall? This was all new to me, but I had a great team of professionals to help me with these scenes. All four cases revolve around the same overall theme, but I wanted to include different aspects in each of the stories. So for me the other big question was: how can I make the narrative work? I have more or less 30 minutes to tell each story, so how do I tell the story effectively in the limited time available?

You have repeatedly worked with Office Kitano, but this time the connection to his own films seems more obvious than before. What is your relationship to Takeshi Kitano?

I have been working with Office Kitano since 2000 for Platform, which was about young people’s lives from 1979 to 89 – the first 10 years of progress in China. This is my fourth project that they are investing in, but in the past my films didn’t have the same level of violence. I have always liked Kitano’s films though – he has found a remarkable way to connect violence and loneliness.

How much was he involved in the production of A Touch of Sin?

A Touch of Sin is available in the UK on VOD from 8 September and on Blu-ray/DVD on 15 September 2014.

It was mainly financial.

Is there anyone else who influenced you in particular for this film?

My biggest influence was King Hu, and the films he made back in the 1970s, in which he addresses the subject of political oppression and the violent reactions of different individuals. I wanted to make a film about violence, too, but I couldn’t find a cinematic language that I was happy with. Then I thought about martial arts movies, about the same things that happened in the past as now.

Your film explores the different social ranks in Chinese society and the injustice that prevails. It seems quite an achievement in itself that you were able to make a film that openly addresses social and political subjects in all of their complexity.

These issues are now more and more discussed in mainstream media, but it’s true that in the past it was not possible to talk about anything like this in films, in particular the gap between the rich and the poor – which is why I wanted to make the film now, because it would be a real shame if we only talk about it in the news and not in art.

Did your status as an international director have an impact on whether or not the film would make it past the censors? And did you have to make compromises in order to avoid censorship?

It is possible, but I think it’s more that the authorities are slowly beginning to understand that we can no longer avoid the problems we are facing right now. I think if we want to push for openness and change we have to believe in creative freedom in our works. With A Touch of Sin, I had no idea whether it would pass censorship, because it would not have in the past, even just a few years ago. But Why it did pass now, I don’t quite know. The message that I am sending to the censorship authorities is that in my world everything is possible. I can make a film about anything I want and I will continue to do so.

It’s a quite pessimistic film overall. To what extent does it reflect your inner feelings in terms of where the country is heading?

Both anger or rage, and pessimism, are personal emotions that we have to address and we have to attempt to rationally understand the reasons behind those emotions. I didn’t intend to make a film about violence, rather I wanted to address that violent streak in human nature that is triggered by the environment.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Watch the trailer:

9th China Independent Film Festival

9th China Independent Film Festival – Cancelled

16-22 November, 2012, Nanjing, China

CIFF website

Most film festival reports follow a fairly established formula: a brief history of the event, followed by a run-through of the highlights of that year, with some concluding thoughts on its position in festival culture and consideration of how it might develop in the future. However, this report of the 9th China Independent Film Festival breaks from critical formula by being a report of a festival that did not happen, and may not happen again due to official intervention. As such, this is perhaps less of a report than an obituary, but one which will try to celebrate the significant achievements of CIFF while bemoaning its sudden demise.

CIFF was founded in 2003 with the intention of providing a platform for Chinese filmmakers whose work was unlikely to receive a mainstream release in their home territory due to strict media censorship. It soon became a vital event for anyone with a genuine interest in features or documentaries that combined formal innovation with unflinching social observation. Although most of the organisation team was based in Beijing, the hub of China’s independent film scene, CIFF was held in Nanjing, the South-East former capital, away from the watchful eye of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). As with most events of this type, the audience for CIFF was comprised of academics, cineastes, critics, distributors, programmers from other festivals, and students, with attendance gradually increasing to the point that many were standing throughout last year’s screenings in the allocated classrooms at the Communication School of Nanjing University.

To say that 2012 has been a difficult year for festival organisers in mainland China would be an understatement, as the government has reacted decisively upon realising the cultural capital that such events have gradually built up by keeping their activities under the popular radar. In August, the Beijing Independent Film Festival was interrupted when the power was cut mid-way through the opening screening, prompting organisers to implement their back-up plan and relocate to the less public venue of Songzhuang Art District on the outskirts of the city. Considering the tense political climate in a year of government leadership change, the programme planned for CIFF was certainly ambitious. In addition to the usual 10 narrative features and 10 documentaries, the 2012 Asian Experimental Film and Video Festival would have run alongside the main event, with more than 30 films scheduled in conjunction with talks from leading academics in the field. This correspondent was concerned that CIFF would struggle to go ahead around the same time as the 18th National Communist Party Congress. Internet reports stated that handles to open the windows of Beijing taxis had been removed to prevent demonstrators from spreading anti-Party propaganda on the streets of the capital, while the cancellations of the Yixian International Photo Festival and Bishan Harvestival suggested a severe clamp-down on all arts-related activities. CIFF had defied the odds before, running relatively smoothly in 2011 despite the cancellation of several Beijing events a few months earlier, so I remained hopeful and cleared my schedule for a week of screenings.

Sadly, the day before CIFF was due to start, I received a phone call informing me of the festival’s cancellation, then watched a television report on the appointment of China’s new cabinet while waiting on a subway platform. With the planned venues and back-up options falling through due to political pressure, CIFF was unable to go underground. Organisers, filmmakers, and attendees who had already made the journey to Nanjing prior to the cancellation announcement were left to socialise for a few days around the university district, with festival founder Zhang Xianmin of Beijing Film Academy proving to be a truly gracious and good-humoured host under difficult circumstances by arranging these activities. The ‘opening up’ of China is often discussed in relation to its national cinema, with Jia Zhangke’s state-approved productions The World (2004), Still Life (2006), and I Wish I Knew (2010) cited as examples of SARFT’s gradual acceptance of art-house cinema with social ideologies that do not exactly toe the party line. However, the situation is actually more complicated, with the degree of official tolerance shifting annually, meaning that windows of opportunity for provocative filmmakers can open when the state sees the benefits of cooperation with the independent sector, only to be slammed shut again if the political climate becomes too sensitive. CIFF succeeded admirably in providing a forum for the kind of filmmakers who do not want to wait for script approval, and will hopefully rise again, probably under a new banner and in a different city, but with the same unwavering sense of purpose.

John Berra

The 8th China Independent Film Festival

No. 89 Shimen Roa

8th China Independent Film Festival

28 October – 1 November, 2011, Nanjing, China

CIFF website

As with last year’s event, the 8th China Independent Film Festival was an exercise in under-promotion: a schedule that was only available in advance if you had the right email address, screenings in lecture rooms at the downtown campus of Nanjing University, and an opening ceremony at a moderately sized venue that provided sufficient seating for those in the know, but left curious latecomers standing in the aisles. This is not a method of organisation that is exclusive to CIFF, as any independent film festival operating in mainland China has to take such measures due to the inclusion of features that have not been approved by SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television). 2011 has been a particularly difficult year for such festivals, with the organisers of the Documentary Film Festival China being pressured to cancel the Beijing-based event (which would also have been in its eighth year) due to a tense political climate that coincided with the detention of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and increased mainland internet restrictions. The 6th Beijing Independent Film Festival went ahead in October, although not without disruption, as the venue had to be changed twice and police presence was reported at the launch event. Representatives of SARFT were in attendance at CIFF, but did not intervene at either screenings or workshop sessions, meaning that the festival ran smoothly compared to its equivalent in the capital. With political conflicts effectively sidestepped, CIFF was able to offer another interesting selection of features, documentaries and experimental shorts, with filmmakers present for post-screening discussions of their work. It could be said that the ‘real’ festival took place at the local branch of Sculpting in Time (a Chinese version of Starbucks that serves alcoholic beverages in addition to over-priced coffee), where the network of directors, distributors, academics and journalists was further expanded.

While the features emerging from China’s independent sector are undoubtedly political, they often avoid sweeping state-of-the-nation surveys in favour of social microcosms to show the effect of national shifts on the family unit or the individual. Zhang Ciyu’s haunting Pear (2010) is a chamber piece concerning a young married couple who are struggling to complete the construction of their new house on a mountain slope; the wife ends up working in a brothel in town to earn the necessary funds and the husband is left to hang around the waiting room of the establishment while she services her clients. Regardless of how much money she makes, the couple can never keep up with the rate of economic acceleration and the pears of the title – the wife’s favourite fruit, which are brought to her in a basket by her husband – are left to rot, much like their dreams of a prosperous future. The eponymous heroine of Song Chuan’s insightful and quietly heart-breaking Huan Huan (2010) is a young village woman who becomes the mistress of the local doctor; she struggles to find her place in the world despite, or because of, a near-constant bombardment of social messages (birth control regulations, labour force drives, state-controlled television news). The turbulent political landscape of the late 1980s is filtered through a nostalgic lens in Shu Haolun’s No. 89 Shimen Road (2010), although reference to Tiananmen ensures that this engaging drama will not receive a mainland release. High school student Xiaoli lives with his strict but understanding grandfather in Shanghai following his mother’s relocation to the United States, and becomes romantically involved with two girls who represent opposing social ideologies; next-door neighbour Lanmi becomes an escort for easy money while classmate Lili is more politically motivated. Shu resorts to some coming-of-age clichés, but this is still an evocative snapshot of youthful uncertainty at a time of social instability.

If the nicely crafted No. 89 Shimen Road represents a middle-of-the-road approach to Chinese independent cinema – a universal narrative placed within a wider political context – then Pema Tseden’s Old Dog (2011) and Jin Rui’s The Cockfighters (2010) exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Old Dog is a poetic portrait of Tibetan life in which the unauthorised sale of the titular animal by the owner’s son leads his father to retrieve the dog on the grounds that using an animal as a commodity is taboo in traditional Tibetan culture. It’s a thoughtful contemplation on the changing values of Tibet under state reform, with striking long shots of farmland divided by barbed wire and town streets that show slow but steady signs of economic progress. By contrast, The Cockfighters is aggressively commercial, a punchy rural thriller that follows the feud that develops between a youth from a wealthy family and a grassroots family man when the former loses his first cockfighting match to the latter. The narrative device of a destructive game of one-upmanship owes much to the genre cinema of South Korea, right down to the obligatory shaving scene before the climactic showdown, and The Cockfighters certainly makes a gripping bid for international box office viability. Developing links between China’s independent sector and alternative production in other Asian territories were adequately illustrated by Zhao Ye’s altogether gentler Last Chestnuts (2010), which was filmed in Nara, Japan, at the invitation of Naomi Kawase, director of The Mourning Forest (2007). A terminally ill Tokyo woman (Kaori Momoi) wanders the area, searching for her missing son, with only a couple of digital photos as clues to his whereabouts, and is assisted by helpful locals; Zhao conveys the time-sensitive desperation of the mother’s search, although the emotional impact is lessened by unnecessary meta-references to Kawase’s work in the same region.

The documentary line-up also offered a range of approaches to independent filmmaking, from studies of creative culture to self-portraits and undercover reports. Wang Hao’s Seven Days in a Year (2011) documents the responsibilities of an internet-monitoring department in Chongqing, revealing how such restrictions are implemented by low-level state servants who spend the day browsing bulletin boards for negative comments and brainstorming SMS advertising strategies to encourage patriotic feeling. Beijing’s art scene was examined by Zeng Guo in two documentaries, 798 Station (2010) and The Cold Winter (2011). The former provides an account of how a thriving art zone comprised of galleries and studios has evolved from factory space, while the latter follows the unsuccessful efforts of artists to stop the demolition of the art districts that surround the central hub of 798 Station. The Cold Winter shows both the strengths and weaknesses of China’s artistic communities, with everyone committed to a certain ideal, but the movement compromised by a lack of agreement on how to practically realise it. However, as with the features, the most interesting documentaries were those that focused on the individual, exploring past and present Chinese society through daily routine or recounted memory. Wei Xiaobo’s The Days (2010) is a candid first-person account of the director’s cash-strapped lifestyle with his live-in girlfriend Xei Fang; they fight, make love and Wei undertakes various freelance assignments to pay the rent. Xu Tong’s Shattered (2011) follows Tang Caifeng, a woman with a chequered past (involvement in illegal mining and prostitution) who returns to her north-east home town to reunite with her father, a retired engineer who was educated under Japanese rule; Old Man Tang has kept many artefacts of the occupation, but his ‘living history’ is of greater value than the portraits of Lenin and Mao Zedong that clutter the home.

Due to the political implications of making films outside the system in China, not to mention the problem of securing exhibition and distribution for productions that lack the ‘dragon seal’ from SARFT, it is still appropriate to group such efforts under the ‘independent’ banner. Yet it should be noted that some films in this year’s CIFF line-up, such as No. 89 Shimen Road and The Cockfighters, find Chinese independent cinema moving towards an American independent model by locating their social concerns within recognisable commercial genres, not to mention boasting production values that contrast with the ‘hand-made’ qualities of Huan Huan or Pear. This is not necessarily a problem, as coming-of-age dramas or revenge thrillers with a certain level of social-political context appeal to the international art-house crowd, who regularly watch films that exist on the fringes of the mainstream but still adhere to genre parameters. However, it is hoped that such potential crossover successes will not overshadow more marginal works like Yang Heng’s Sun Spots (2009), a minimalist romance between a bored young woman and a violent gangster that is told in just 31 long takes with no close-ups. Sun Spots polarised audience opinion – some found it to be a patience-tester, others were hypnotised by its deliberate rhythm – but nonetheless generated much discussion due to its formal qualities. On the basis of this year’s CIFF selection, the Chinese independent sector appears to have achieved a balance between artistic exploration and commercial aspirations; these potentially conflicting versions of ‘independent production’ are able to comfortably co-exist, mutually supporting one another due to the difficult circumstances under which both are brought to fruition by their directors. CIFF has also encountered difficulties in terms of accommodating the growing interests of directors and viewers within a limited space and schedule, but like the filmmakers that it supports, the festival has managed to find a measure of freedom within a world of restriction.

John Berra

7th China Independent Film Festival

Perfect Life (Image provided by CIFF)

7th China Independent Film Festival

21-25 October 2010, Nanjing, China

CIFF website

Compared to the film festivals that are held regularly in Beijing and Shanghai, the annual China Independent Film Festival is a relatively low-key affair. Largely organised by volunteer staff, screenings take place at the two main campuses of Nanjing University, the Gulou campus in the downtown area of the city, and the more recently developed Xinlin campus located on its outskirts, with related gatherings at nearby art galleries and eateries. As not every film in the line-up has received the stamp of approval from the Film Bureau of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), this celebration of Chinese cinema occurs under the political radar, and the lack of the promotion means that many students of Nanjing University are not aware that an important film festival is taking place on their campus until a few banners appear in the days leading up to the event. However, the festival organisers somehow manage to make this ‘invisible’ festival sufficiently noticeable and 2010 screenings were well-attended, leading to a series of productive Q&A sessions with the filmmakers in attendance and valuable networking events.

Although the festival programme split the selected titles into the two distinct strands of feature films and documentaries, three films almost defied such categorisation. Emily Tang’s spellbinding Perfect Life (2008) juxtaposes the fictional narrative of a woman working in a somewhat seedy business hotel in Shenyang with documentary footage of a Hong Kong resident who is undergoing a messy divorce and struggling to support herself as a dancer-for-hire in a tacky club. Jia Zhangke served as the executive producer of Perfect Life, and the fusion of fact and fiction recalls his masterpieces Platform (2000) and 24 City (2008), but Tang steps out of the shadow of her financial benefactor by imbuing proceedings with an element of magical realism as the real and the imagined eventually come to co-exist. Zhao Dayong’s The High Life (2010) features Dian Qiu, a real-life prison guard and ‘trash poet’ who insists that prisoners read his verses aloud as a means of raising their spirits, but does so within the context of a fiction narrative. This recreation of the artistically inclined prison guard’s routine serves to bookend an entirely fictional mid-section about a small-time scam artist who runs a fake employment agency and seeks meaning through the opera routine that he performs on his rooftop. The behaviour of the inhabitants of the crowded city slum in which The High Life is located is as morally questionable as it is economically desperate, but Zhao also finds evidence of the human spirit amid the urban squalor. Li Luo’s Rivers and My Father (2010) is beautifully shot in black and white and echoes the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the director weaves together a series of family recollections of childhood. The final third of this meditative experience consists of comments and criticism that Li’s father made about the film after seeing an early cut, a lovely touch that emphasises the manner in which memory is altered when filtered through the medium of cinema.

The other features were more clearly defined in terms of narrative, but were no less innovative or insightful. Liu Jian’s edgy animation Piercing (2009) takes place in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and follows the misfortune of a young man who loses his factory job and is then beaten up by supermarket guards after being mistaken for a thief. Although overly bleak at times, Piercing creates a credible world where bribery, poverty and police brutality work in tandem, and no good deed goes unpunished. Some much-needed humour was provided by Hao Jie’s hilarious Single Man (2010), which episodically explores the sexual activities of the bachelors of a small village. Hao works wonders with amateur actors and a scene in which the villagers gang up on a pair of tight-fisted watermelon buyers serves as both a comedic set-piece and a commentary on village mentality in situations of conflict. The only disappointment in the feature strand was Liu Yonghong’s Tangle (2009), a drab drama about a small-town traffic cop dealing with familial responsibilities. Yongshong served as cameraman on Li Yang’s Blind Shaft (2003), arguably one of the best films from mainland China in the past decade, but Tangle was less aesthetically and thematically sure-footed.

The documentary strand found filmmakers adopting a variety of perspectives – communal, environmental, individual and institutional – to examine modern China. Zhou Hao’s Cop Shop (2010) was at once remarkable and mundane; the filmmaker had managed to secure permission to shoot for 15 days in a police station in Guangzhou Railway Station, but the audience becomes as hardened to the daily grind as the officers that Zhou is documenting as they deal with petty disputes and repeatedly explain that they cannot help to secure train tickets. Chen Xinzhong’s deeply moving Red White (2009) chronicles the efforts of the survivors of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to overcome personal grief and rebuild their community; Chen picks up on personal approaches to dealing with tragedy (a Taoist worshipper tries to prevent another earthquake by comforting the spirits of the dead, an elderly man cuts hair in a makeshift salon to avoid dwelling on the loss of his grandson) but also considers how the town has been failed by the state in terms of preparing for such a disaster. Yang Yishu’s On the Road (2010) was filmed during the snowstorm that swept through Southern China in early 2009 and follows two truck drivers as they set off from Nantong to make a delivery in Guizhou, only to find that one road after another is closed due to treacherous weather conditions. A compelling study of how friendship is tested under pressure, On the Road captures the alternately dangerous and tedious nature of the drivers’ predicament as they navigate an increasingly risky route or take refuge from the storm in cheap motels. While each of these documentaries dealt with a microcosm of contemporary Chinese society, Guo Xiaolu’s superbly realised Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) is a comparatively sweeping state-of-the-nation study; 12 vignettes, including an old peasant who has lost his land, a weapon factory worker who wishes that Mao was still in charge, and a disillusioned flower-arranger in a high-class hotel, form a mosaic of modern China that considers the impact of economic reform on the individual.

The 7th China Independent Film Festival served to emphasise that alternative production in China is very much in a state of transition, moving from an ideologically charged ‘underground’ movement to a self-sustained ‘independent’ sector. Although still politicised, the sector is not only showing signs of the formation of its own industrial networks but an awareness of how to work around the state, rather than to stubbornly work against it. This is evident in the manner in which a wider political context was absent from many of the films and documentaries in the festival, although this presumptive measure to side-step the restrictions of SARFT is also a political statement in itself. Some of the films at CIFF had already secured DVD and VOD distribution in the United States, while Single Man was reportedly warmly received at San Sebastian in September and could be a contender for crossover success, but other titles are less likely to find screen time beyond the festival circuit. As such, it may seem perfectly reasonable to wish that this particular festival was able to enjoy more exposure, but in order to maintain the quality of the 2010 event, to continue to hide in plain sight seems like the more suitable strategy.

John Berra

The High Life: Interview with Zhao Dayong

The High Life (Image provided by CIFF)

Format: Cinema

Director: Zhao Dayong

Writer: Zhao Dayong

Cast: Xiu Hong, Liu Yanfei, Dian Qiu

China, 2010

93 mins

For more information on the film go to the Lantern Films website.

Screening as part of: 7th China Independent Film Festival

21-25 October 2010, Nanjing, China

For more information go to the CIFF website.

Zhao Dayong’s The High Life is an unflinching portrait of the human condition in the city streets and prison cells of Guangzhou, China, and it marks the director’s move into narrative cinema following two acclaimed documentaries, Street Life (2006) and Ghost Town (2008). Although the intersecting narratives of The High Life are entirely fictional, the casting of real-life prison guard and aspiring poet Dian Qiu as himself serves as a reminder of Zhao’s documentary roots, while Dian’s world-weary presence effectively bookends the film with a combination of authority and humanity. The mid-section is devoted to the story of Jian Ming, a small-time scam artist who takes advantage of migrant workers via his fake employment agency, creating a collage with the photos from their application forms on his apartment wall. Jian Ming’s life begins to unravel when he develops feelings for Xiao Ya, a young woman from the countryside who he has placed in a sleazy hair salon, and makes the mistake of becoming involved in an ill-fated pyramid scheme. The narrative strands inform, but do not necessarily impact on, one another, creating an authentic representation of one of Guangzhou’s most dilapidated districts. Zhao Dayong spoke to John Berra at the 7th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing.

JB: As you have a background in documentary filmmaking, why did you choose to feature the prison guard and poet Dian Qiu as a character in a fiction narrative rather than documenting his daily routine?

ZD: I chose to make a narrative feature because documentary is restrictive in that it has to respect reality. With fiction, you have the freedom of representation and can be more subjective. Because the prison guard is a symbol of power, it is more powerful to represent this character through fiction. Dian Qiu and I have been friends for a long time, I know him very well. Therefore, his real life gave me lots of inspiration. I combined his life with my original story about the slum and they became one movie. I originally had a story in which an outsider comes to this environment to find work and tries to survive. Although this story was in my mind for a long time, I decided that if the movie only told this story, it would not be interesting enough.

The film features two living spaces, the slum and the prison, and you make cultural and institutional comparisons between them.

Yes, they have similarities. Because this old slum is almost like a prison; it’s surrounded by high-rise buildings, which are like a prison wall. Within this space, the people are free, but it’s a superficial freedom because they have to deal with lots of invisible control. On the other hand, the prison is an enclosed space, too. The people within it, both the prisoners and the guards, are also oppressed. Dian Qiu tries to find ways to resolve his oppression; poetry is one way, conversation with the female prisoner is another.

The character of Jian Ming runs a fake employment agency and becomes involved in a pyramid scheme. How did you research this kind of illegal activity?

I was actually involved with MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) when I first came to Guangzhou, more specifically with Amway, which was a very famous MLM network back then. This was around 1995, in the early days of MLM. My friend invited me to a meeting and I saw some Westerners on the stage talking about ‘the legend of Amway’. I was told that I could earn millions within a year but I immediately said that it was all bullshit. However, I have since been fascinated by these events and I would later look for opportunities to go to them because I am always interested in the people who attend. They always look very serious, thinking that they will become millionaires the following day. The actor who plays Jian Ming has also been involved in MLM before, but he is now a chef in real life.

Did the police ever raid a meeting that you attended, as seen in The High Life?

I was involved when everything was legal. MLM was a pyramid scheme for selling real goods in 1995, so the police were not paying any attention to it. In recent years, MLM has become a scam. Therefore, the government has declared that MLM is no longer legal and sometimes the police will arrest people for engaging in such activities. However, they have managed to continue operating by changing their business description to ‘Direct Selling’, which is essentially the same activity, but considered legal.

I was wondering why Jian Ming puts the photos up on the wall of his apartment. Is it because of feelings of guilt from tricking these migrant workers? It seems that he could help these people to find jobs if he really applied himself as he recognises their potential and has a connection with them on some level.

You are too involved in the story! You can interpret this in many ways; you can interpret this as his achievement, you can also interpret this as his understanding of human beings. There are many storylines in the film, so it is also intended to mislead you.

The High Life is reflective of reality in that it does not have a big climax and certain stories, such as Jian Ming’s burgeoning relationship with Xiao Ya, are dropped just as they seem to become significant.

This is more real, because life is just like this, absurd, disordered and without reason. This film has four storylines and each story is an individual story. If I followed the Hollywood style, The High Life could be separated into four movies. But at some point, each storyline stops and transforms into another storyline, then a surprise ending appears. This represents the real world. The film also shows the goodness that is in the world, but the characters can never get hold of it. For example, Jian Ming and his lover are one step away from being happy together, but that storyline ends with separation. Jian Ming also looks for hope through his relationship with the girl in the salon.

But they are both on the bottom rung of the social-economic ladder, so they cannot help each other.

Yes, happiness always slips away. But misfortune can come at any time.

The character of Jian Ming evokes the film noir archetype of the small-time criminal on a downward spiral. Were you influenced by any Western genre films when writing the screenplay?

Not really. I watch very few films because my background is painting and I have not had any training in the field of filmmaking. The film is based on my life experiences and my observations of the world. I do not borrow from, or imitate, other filmmakers because I believe that my life experiences are sufficient for creative inspiration. It is important that a director is instinctive and intuitive; if someone has no instinct, he is not suited to being a director. Narrative filmmaking is very much related to documentary filmmaking. When you make a documentary, you observe and capture people in order to make a story from reality; you have to train yourself to unconsciously observe reality. I have always said that, if you want to make a feature film, you must make a documentary first.

The High Life has a richly textured aesthetic. How did you achieve such a striking visual style on a relatively low budget?

My background is in advertising and I work with a very good team. This film has cost 800,000 Chinese yuan. However, in order to achieve the same level of quality, other directors might need three or even five times that budget. People who have good resources are rather rare within the independent filmmaking sector in China. All my productions follow professional procedures. Although the budget is low, everything from the camerawork to the lighting, the set dressing, the editing and sound recording are all up to the same standard as a blockbuster so that the film can be shown in the cinema. But I am open-minded. If anyone asked me to make a commercial movie, either domestically or abroad, I would go for it as I would like to make commercial movies as well.

Interview by John Berra