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?
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
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