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Cannes: China Buzzing Over Jia Zhangke's 'A Touch of Sin'

A Touch of Sin

Chinese social media lights up after a trailer for the director's Cannes competition entry appears online, revealing scenes referencing some social ills in the country.

“Based on True Events.” It’s one of the oldest storytelling hooks in the book, and in a Hollywood movie trailer, it tends to read like a tired marketing cliché. But in China, where broaching sensational national news on screen is taboo among the country’s censors, any true-to-life claim instantly raises eyebrows.

Such was the case when the trailer for Jia Zhangke’s hotly anticipated Cannes competition entry, A Touch of Sin dropped on Youku (China’s YouTube) Wednesday, leading to a flurry of surprise and speculation on Chinese social media.

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One Weibo user described the film as seeming “very audacious,” adding: “Judging from the trailer, it contains a lot of critical scenes based in reality that were created with no fear of the censorship system.”

Little was previously known about Jia’s film, but the trailer hints at several storylines based on widely discussed -- but never filmed -- Chinese social ills and political scandals, such as a notorious case from Hubei province in 2009, when a pedicurist named Deng Yujiao stabbed and killed a local bureaucrat after he reportedly slapped her in the face with a wad of cash and tried to force himself on her (based on the trailer, Jia's wife and muse, Zhao Tao plays a woman placed in a similar predicament). Another scene features snippets of news footage from the 2011 high-speed train accident in China that killed 40 people and led to a major scandal over mismanagement of the country’s railway ministry – and yet another mentions Chinese laborers killing themselves in sweatshops, a likely reference to the wave of suicides that took place at the factories of Foxcon, the company known as the assembler of the Apple iPhone.

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Perhaps the most politically daring element of the whole trailer is a comment made at the end, when a character is heard saying: “The gods are to blame – if you have grievances, tell heaven about them!” While audiences will have to wait for the full film to put the dialog in context, as it stands here it could easily be interpreted as implying that individual wrongdoings are in some way the consequence of a social system designed by paramount leaders who live in a rarefied realm above the concerns of ordinary people. It also might refer to China’s unique “petitioners’ movement,” in which disgruntled citizens would bring their complaints against corruption and official wrongdoing to the central authorities in Beijing.

“I don’t know whether this film can be shown in [China],” wrote one Weibo user. Another replied: “It doesn’t matter, Summer Palace wasn’t screened here but we got to watch it anyway.”

That remark is a reference to Chinese director Lou Ye’s 2006 Cannes competition entry Summer Palace, which was swiftly banned in China after its premiere on the Croisette (although it remains widely available on streaming video sites in the country). The government also prohibited Lou from making films in China for five years.

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One factor that may save Jia from Lou’s fate (and which makes the apparently provocative nature of his Cannes entry all the more surprising): A Touch of Sin was co-produced by Jia’s banner Xstream Productions and the major state-backed studio, Shanghai Film Group – usually a very strong indication that the film got official script approval long before production.

All of which ensures that the world’s China watchers will be keeping a close eye on A Touch of Sin’s reception on the Croisette on Saturday. 

Patrick Brzeski contributed to this report.