Jia Zhangke is one of the most important directors in China and within global cinema. He wrote and directed this film titled carefully to nod towards King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (Taiwan 1971) and his script won the major screenwriter’s prize at Cannes in 2013. Why then has it taken a year to get to the UK and still hasn’t got a Chinese domestic release?
The second question is perhaps easiest to understand since Jia paints a disturbing picture of contemporary China. The Chinese censors have succeeded in stimulating the circulation of pirate copies to significant audiences in China. The problems with UK distribution of anything other than Hollywood blockbusters are well known. I’m glad that Arrow managed to get the film into a few UK cinemas but I fear that they don’t have the muscle to promote it properly. But then Jia isn’t the easiest filmmaker to put before the public. The content of his films often appeals directly to popular audiences but the pacing and contemplative style sometimes cause barriers. But if you can get into the groove, Jia offers both great filmmaking and plenty to think about.
A Touch of Sin is based on four news stories from the past few years, all discussed on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter (Weibo) but not so readily on official Chinese News channels. Importantly, the stories emanate from Shanxi (North), Chongqing (West), Guangzhou (South) and Hubei (Central) – and not from Beijing or Shanghai (or the most remote parts of the country). This is like a UK film featuring stories from Dundee, Southampton, the East Midlands and North Wales – but not London. The stories are also said to make references to traditional wu xia tales. Much has been made of this apparent shift towards genre filmmaking but the links to Jia’s earlier films are still strongly in place.
The four stories represent the lives of ‘ordinary people’. In one a worker in a town which has effectively been ‘sold’ by a local politician eventually flips and attacks what he sees as the parasites who are destroying opportunities for local people and stealing all the profits. In another, a man who travels hundreds of miles to find work in order to support his ageing mother decides that robbing (and killing) the rich on his travels is more profitable. A woman finds work in a sauna/massage parlour before the behaviour of the guests drives her to violence and in the final story a young man is driven to despair by the alienation of working in a typical Chinese factory making goods for the West.
Jia allows the stories to overlap (two characters from different stories might pass each other at a road junction or a railway station) so that we get the impression that we are on a roundabout constantly moving through stories about degradation in modern China. The settings for some of the stories are the mundane cityscapes and small town milieu familiar from Jia’s earlier films but they also include some of the more surreal settings Jia has also previously explored – a resort/nightclub with girls dressed in outlandish costumes recalls The World (2004). The inference seems clear – the negative impact of globalised forms of ‘recreation’ alongside the mind-numbing factory work courtesy of contracts for global corporations.
The moments of violence are presented in well-edited action sequences but the overall aesthetic is of the long take and long-shot composition. This, for me at least, is the most distinctive aspect of Jia’s style and I marvel at his ability to compose images with his regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai. The protagonists of three of the four stories are actors I recognised from other Chinese films, including his partner Zhao Tao.
I have no doubt that there was much I missed in the representations of modern China in these four stories. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again when it appears on DVD (September in the UK). Please don’t miss it!