Cannes Best Screenplay Winner Jia Zhangke: ‘I Want to Bring About Change in China’ (Q&A)

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Now the world’s second-largest movie market, China’s rise as a major player in the global film industry is firmly established. But director Jia Zhangke’s win of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes Sunday gave his country something it continues to hunger for: recognition as a creative force in world cinema, rather than merely a market for consumption.

Like much of his work -- Platform (2000), The World (2004), Still Life (2006) – Jia’s Cannes competition entry A Touch of Sin portrays the social toll of China’s breakneck development on the lives of individuals marginalized or left behind by the country's "economic miracle." But whereas those earlier films broached the inequity and hardship of modernizing China via an aesthetic of slow-paced social realism -- shot through with melancholy -- the new film, Jia says, was motivated by anger. 

Peppered with scenes of jarring ultra-violence, the film's provocative treatment of Chinese social ills -- including several references to the 2011 Wenzhou high-speed train accident, which killed 40, was covered up by authorities and generated a major scandal that was belatedly censored from Chinese social media and the press -- created a stir during the first few days of the Cannes festival. 

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Jia's early directorial efforts -- from his first feature, Xiao Wu (1997), to Unknown Pleasures (2002) -- were produced "underground" in China -- outside the state system and without official approval. Since The World, Jia has worked within the system, co-producing films with his Xstream Pictures and the state-affiliated Shanghai Film Group. Yet none of his work to date has been given an official release in China, either because the content was deemed too controversial or the movies simply too non-commercial for China's nascent movie circuits (most likely a combination of both). Despite the fact that A Touch of Sin is probably more politically provocative than any of his earlier films, Jia says he is confident it will be screened in China. 

Composed of four loosely interlaced narratives, A Touch of Sin is based on recent real-life news incidents well known in China: a rural miner who went on a murderous shotgun rampage against the corrupt leaders of his village, a poor migrant worker who turned to armed robbery, a sauna receptionist who stabbed a patron who slapped her repeatedly in the face with a wad of cash after she refused to sell him sexual favors, and a young man who committed suicide at one of the factories of Foxconn, assembler of the Apple iPhone.

Jia, 43, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at a beachside cafe in Cannes shortly before his Best Screenplay win to discuss why he felt he needed to make a violent movie, how Weibo (China’s Twitter) inspired the film’s structure, and why a wide release in China for A Touch of Sin would signal a sea change for the country’s film industry.

The Hollywood Reporter: A Touch of Sin addresses many of the same themes as your prior work but does so with a much more extreme aesthetic. What made you want to deal with violence?

Jia Zhangke: I live in a country that is changing at an incredible pace, and that’s been the case since my first film. In the past, of course, we came across conflicts and personal issues, but in the last two or three years of my life -- of the Chinese people’s public life -- there have been many extremely violent incidents. The film’s four characters and their stories are based on true events that were widely discussed a few years ago on Weibo. This new media inevitably brought these events to light. Not only did those events sadden me, but they deeply shocked me. That was when I decided to use my filmmaking to confront violence. Because of our traditions and our culture, violence was discouraged in the past from being presented in Chinese films. However, in my opinion, if there’s violence actually occurring, then it should be openly discussed, not just on Weibo or social media, but in films too. We can’t stay silent.

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THR: So, the title -- who are the real “sinners” in these stories? It seems clear that you’re not just referring to the violent crimes the characters commit, but also to the bigger social forces in the country that put them in such difficult positions.

Jia: Yes, there are definitely outside forces at work -- social, political, and the new fast-paced economy. The economic development of China has brought out the regional differences in the country and also caused inner turbulence within people. There is a kind of social violence in this. For example, the rapid-pace of reform in China is itself a kind of violence, or the high-speed train accident in Wenzhou, or the gap between rich and poor. How we are pushed by a violent environment and how we wind up choosing violence are some of things that are explored in the film.

THR: How did you come to employ a multi-narrative plot structure?

Jia: I chose to tell four stories instead of one because this is the way I received the information on Weibo as it was happening. They were all intertwined with one another, not happening one at a time. It hit me that I could present this intertwined feeling in my film, just like the way I experienced it on Weibo.

To explain further, for me, the first story is about how the violence of an unjust society can bring violence out of an individual. The second is about how loneliness and boredom in one’s mental world -- and the inability to find fulfillment and self-worth in society -- can cause imbalance within an individual, and in the end, he might resort to violence as a way out. The third is about how one’s dignity can be exploited and violently taken away, and how the individual then resorts to the same means to take it back. The last one is a story of miserable self-destruction. True, the young man kills himself, but he is also killed by the factory, the expectations of his family, and even by the noise of his life.

In fact, I don’t think of this film as four separate parts; they are more like one story to me. They all share a mental world of despair, and they are all connected to each other.

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THR: The film ends with a long shot framed around a group of rural Chinese villagers staring into the camera.

Jia: At the end of the film, whether you are a sinner or not is a matter I want the whole of society to think about. I think there’s potential for violence inside of everybody, but it may be brought out or awakened by the violence and injustice we are subjected to. This is a facet of humanity that we all need to think over. 

THR: The title is also a reference to King Hu’s martial arts classic A Touch of Zen, which won a Technical Grand Prize at Cannes in 1975. The film’s overall style often feels like a mash-up of the slow-paced social realism that you’re known for with dashes of wuxia and Hong Kong gangster cinema. 

Jia: I would say the film is very much like Chinese martial arts films -- the ones from the 1960 and '70s -- because they all present some kind of narrative of personal resistance through violence. Though those stories are set in the old China, the spirit still exists in contemporary society, which I referenced in the film while I was writing about the four characters.

THR: There’s one scene where two characters -- a boy and a girl, both migrant workers who have taken dehumanizing jobs to make ends meet -- are reading the news of the train accident and some of the violent happenings from the other storylines. The girl asks what they should tweet in response, and each time the boy suggests simply: “WTF.” It almost seems as if the whole film can be distilled down into that reaction on your behalf.

Jia: Yep, exactly. But I would also say I pushed myself back into those horrible moments to try to perceive and understand them.

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THR: I can’t think of a single recent Chinese film that addresses social and political issues so boldly that has gotten a mainstream release in China.

Jia: The film will indeed be released in China. Everyone in Cannes has been asking me about this. And the answer is: Yes, it has been approved for release in China.

THR: Wow. That would represent a big moment for the Chinese film industry, no?

Jia: I really want to bring about some changes in China -- and not just freedom of speech or freedom of expression. I want to use that free spirit and put it into my films, to let everyone see that with that belief in the free spirit, we can tell stories that help propel society forward, which is ultimately far more important.

THR: But Chinese filmmakers have faced plenty of challenges and problems while pursuing this agenda. For example, Ye Lou’s Mystery, which was awarded Best Picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards and showed in Cannes last year, was censored for its Chinese release to an extent that Ye Lou ultimately asked to have his name removed from the credits. You’re not concerned that you might be asked to make significant changes to A Touch of Sin?

Jia: The version that’s showing at this film festival is the one that has been approved for release in China, so I don’t believe I will have to go through that process again. Usually, in China, it takes three to four months to plan and prepare for a film’s release. Because I was busy editing the film up until just before I came to Cannes, I will start working on the next step as soon as I get back. So hopefully it will be shown in October.

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THR: Discussions of some of the real-life episodes your film re-creates were eventually censored and blocked on Weibo.

Jia: They were first discussed on social networks, and back then people had all kinds of different comments about them. And it was four or five years ago. That we are now able to put these issues into films that can be shown to the public is a sign that China is opening up about these discussions, and hopefully it will only become more and more open.

THR: If the film does indeed get a wide release, despite touching on politically sensitive topics -- the train accident, corruption, prostitution -- would it be a stretch to say that perhaps this has been allowed because of the way the film’s themes somewhat align with Xi Jinping's campaign to crack down on corruption and lavish living by government officials? In a certain light, the film’s themes do sort of ally with some of the current government talking points.

Jia: Corruption is the most talked about issue in China. It’s a subject that the Chinese government and Chinese society can no longer afford not to face. Ever since I started to make films, it has always been a concern that has been on the people’s lips. What seemed so terrible to me was the censorship of films in the past, because filmmakers could never say and make exactly what they wanted to -- instead, they had to think and think. I want to break this pattern. Instead of thinking about whether my films can pass censorship, I just want to create them by following my inner urges. I think, as a director, you have to stick to who you are and keep your style and vision. So I don’t know if my film aligns with the current government talking points. I just made the film that I truly wanted to make.

THR: You make a rather surprising cameo in the film. It’s no Hitchcock walk-by; you appear as one of the slimiest characters in a brothel scene. What made you decide to take that part?

Jia: [Laughs] It was such an ugly and annoying role, no one else wanted it. So I thought, I’ll just do it myself; it’s the easiest solution.

THR: It looked like you had fun with it. You’re shockingly convincing.

Jia: Well, thank you -- I suppose. [Laughs]

THR: Your next project is rumored to be a full-on martial arts genre film. That would be another departure for you, especially given the pacing you are known for.

Jia: It’s a story about China one century ago. And yes, it’s a real martial arts movie. It’s partly a departure and partly not. The big change for me in the next project is the action scenes, because there are a lot of them. But many of the themes will be the same, because 100 years ago China was also undergoing historic changes. So the thematic issues will stay the same: a rapidly changing China and how that affects individual lives.
 

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