If the advance photo of a blood-drenched Zhao Tao weren’t mission statement enough, Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch Of Sin announces its departure from the director’s previous work with a flurry of gunfire in its opening scene. But Jia, who established himself as the great chronicler of life in contemporary China with movies like Platform, The World, and 24 City, hasn’t gone gangster, at least not entirely. True, A Touch Of Sin (the English title is a tribute to A Touch Of Zen, by the great martial-arts director King Hu) employs digital effects in the service of violent setpieces, but it’s hardly The Matrix. Until the moment when each of the film’s four stories erupts into violence, it could be any of his recent movies, where individual attempts to change things for the better, or even simply live a decent life, are thwarted by a culture of pervasive corruption and moral chaos. That violence makes A Touch Of Sin more commercial than Jia’s other features, which is ironic, but not accidental: There’s an urgency to the film, a demand to be seen at home as well as abroad. Jia talked to The Dissolve through a translator shortly after the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival.
The Dissolve: The four stories that make up A Touch Of Sin are all based on real incidents that became well-known through Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. How did you decide on these four stories?
Jia Zhang-ke: These four characters all came from news reports from China; they’re all people who have endured severe acts of violence, and who have since transformed from victims to being perpetrators of violence themselves. I first learned of these events via Weibo and social media and other news reports, and I found the cumulation of these events very unsettling. I decided I had to use film as a way to form a deeper contemplation of violence in our society.
The Dissolve: Even before you settled on these stories, you spoke about wanting to make something inspired by classic wuxia martial-arts movies. But much of the violence in A Touch Of Sin involves firearms, and it’s often messy and unchoreographed. Where do you see the wuxia influence in the film?
“The film itself is an attempt to subvert the notion that violence can only be responded to with violence.”
Zhang-ke: I found that the four characters had lives that very much paralleled the characters in wuxia films, who also faced a milieu of social change and personal challenges in the face of these changes, and resorted to using violence against violence themselves. That’s when I decided to apply the wuxia form when telling these contemporary stories. Where it diverges from traditional wuxia films is that these characters are very ordinary people living in contemporary society. They are not supernatural characters such as those told in classic wuxia films. The picture tells a story of transformation from these ordinary lives to a supernatural state—where they’re faced with real acts of danger, and they transform into a sort of warrior. I wanted to use that point as a way to discuss the insidious nature of violence that mounts in our society. In traditional wuxia pictures, there is a tendency to aestheticize violence, but in my film, I wanted to focus on that destructive moment and nature of violence.
The Dissolve: In your documentaries as well as feature films, you’ve tended recently toward a fairly transparent, presentational style. How did you strike a balance between that approach and the more heightened style of A Touch Of Sin’s violence?
Zhang-ke: I do think this film is my most dramatic and theatrical film so far. But to me, the moments of violence in real life are surely surreal. I thought I could apply this documentary aesthetic and portray these surreal events. I think the film enters into theatrical mode when those moments of violence are unveiled. When they happen, because they seem so surreal, they are necessarily imagined and expounded upon by my imagination, to fill in the missing parts of the picture. I wanted to capture this feeling when I was filming. You can make the analogy between the film and boiling a kettle of water on a stove. For instance, when the story begins, it is in documentary mode, and slowly, as the kettle begins to heat up, you hear a quiet whistle that accumulates, and eventually, the water reaches a boiling point. And that’s the moment of violence when the wuxia elements enter the picture.
The Dissolve: These stories build to moments of violence that are horrifying, but also understandable. In some circumstances, their actions might actually improve their lives. It’s as if this is a rational response to the world they live in, not just an emotional one.
Zhang-ke: Through the film, I wanted to explore the process and progress of violence, the mounting injustices of society, and also the scarcity of resources available to the individual. Also, the interpersonal violence that takes away each other’s pride. I gradually realized that there is another root of this violence: When people are faced with these cruel social realities, the opportunity to express oneself gets taken away. There’s no intellectual way to reflect upon these realities. That violence becomes a mode of expression for those who do not have the language to express themselves in these moments.
The Dissolve: The stories in A Touch Of Sin are set in different parts of China, and are performed in different dialects as well. Did that come from the real stories, or did you change them to make sure they represented different places in the country?
Zhang-ke: Basically, my stories—my film—follow the same geography as the true events. The first story occurs in Shanxi, which is also happens to be my hometown. The second story happens in Chongqing. The third happens in Hubei, and there happens to be a very mountainous landscape there, which corresponds with the typical landscape that you would identify with in wuxia films. And the last one happens in Dongguan, which is where there’s the highest concentration of factories in China.
The Dissolve: The last story ends with a character turning violence on himself—and he’s the youngest character in the movie, the one who might, in a different film, represent the hope of a new generation. Was that why you ended the movie with that particular story?
Zhang-ke: I think he does represent the difficulties and pressures faced by the next generation in China, because there’s such a geographic disparity in China, and people migrate in order to seek work all over the country, from the north to the south. There’s a certain degree of disappointment when they realize their hopes and dreams will not correspond with the work they find. Because of all these factors—their salaries, and their inability to have the resources and papers that it takes to really, truly access city life. It always results in an overwhelming sense of disappointment. They cannot form true entry points into the city through their work in migrating.
The Dissolve: The theme of disconnection runs all through your films, going back to Xiao Wu and The World. Do you think Weibo or social media generally has changed the extent to which people feel connected to each other?
“I had to use film as a way to form a deeper contemplation of violence in our society.”
Zhang-ke: Yes, I think Weibo is a credible transformation to the social climate in China. It definitely affected the way I conceived the structure of the film. The reason I structured it into four stories is first, to express the ubiquity of these events, that they’re not just isolated incidents. Second, to express the mode of receiving information in simultaneity. To a certain degree, Weibo has lent democratic freedom in the way people are able to receive news reports. It has affected the daily lives of real people, because through Weibo, communities are formed, and then discussions are formed thereafter that affect daily life and perspective.
The Dissolve: You’ve also credited Weibo with the fact that A Touch Of Sin has been surprisingly untouched by Chinese censors. Your sense was that because the stories it was based on were so well-known, there was no point in trying to pretend they didn’t happen.
Zhang-ke: To a certain degree, the stories the film is based on have been widely reported through news and discussed on social media. So one cannot help but face up to these stories, and they’re stories that cannot be obscured anymore. So to a certain degree, that reality has helped the film pass through censorship.
The Dissolve: Were you surprised with it passing through censorship? Is this the version Chinese audiences will be seeing when it opens in November?
Zhang-ke: Personally, I’m not that surprised, although I was prepared to go through every step of the censorship process with my utmost patience. Currently, the film is slated for theatrical release in November in China, but the specific date needs to be set strategically. We haven’t decided on that date yet, because every single month, there’s about 30 to 40 movies being released in Chinese theaters. So we’re trying to decide what would be the best date.
The Dissolve: Was this a particularly difficult film for you to get made?
Zhang-ke: Indeed, it was a very complicated shoot. Firstly, it was my very first action-sequence filming. Then, secondly, the structure of the film required us to move from the north to the south in our filming. So we were constantly traveling while we were filming each sequence.
The Dissolve: The film feels despairing about the state of contemporary China. People have used the word “angry” to describe it. Do you see this as an angry film?
Zhang-ke: I would say the characters in the film are angry—or rather, they are in a state of anger. I wanted to use the film in a very powerful way to convey that expression. But the film itself is an attempt to subvert the notion that violence can only be responded to with violence, because I do not agree with that form of solution. But it is important to have a spirit of rebellion in the individual. The film itself is a sort of intervention for me.