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Jia Zhangke on A Touch of Sin and a changing China

Director Jia Zhangke joins film critic Tony Rayns to talk about violence in A Touch of Sin, the themes of his previous work and his love of John Woo. Zhangke explains the influence of his home province, Shanxi, and his interest in regional differences across China.

Transcript

Interviewer

I think we should start off with the new film, as people have just seen it. Maybe I should ask you first, because this film is a little different from your other films in some respects. For example, the other films have not really been, have not really dealt with violence.

This time, this film is quite violent. It's quite startling to people who have seen your other films. They didn't expect that you would make a film like this. Can you say something about that change? What happened? Did you have some bad experience?

Jia Zhangke

I think before A Touch of Sin, all the films I had dealt with before that were about ordinary life of ordinary people. But I think there are a degree of violence in that as well.

By that, I mean they are exerting violence on themselves. Because they are so enduring, they tolerate a lot, they endure a lot. I think the change is in Chinese society that I've observed. There's a huge change, a rapid change in Chinese society, and that's where the change comes from.

And I think this film, the idea comes from the microblock I use. Because through microblock, I am able to come across and see and hear a lot of things that happen, spontaneous things. Spontaneous violence that occurred in China and also around the world, and this has drawn me into this.

There are two things that shocked me. Why is there such a frequent occurrence of this kind of things? The other thing that shocked me was how little that I knew about how violence has been fomenting in people's lives, and I knew so little about it. This fact has shocked me.

Of course, making films is my way of expressing this, and through filmmaking, I try to understand these things. But I'm fine.

Interviewer

I couldn't help noticing that the film starts, and actually finishes as well, in Shanxi, which is your home province. It's up in the north, so slightly northwest. Not as far as Shijiazhuang, but up in that part of China. But then in the main part of the film, you seem to be making a journey south. In fact, you progressively go further and further south, and the fourth story is set in Guangdong, the southernmost province, adjoining Hong Kong.

Is there a particular reason that the film describes this kind of trajectory through China, from the north to the south, and then goes right back to the north at the very end?

Jia Zhangke

I love travelling, and I often traveled north to south, southwards. During these journeys, I have come across many different cultures, the differences, the regional differences within China. I had always wanted to make something like a road film about this journey, this vertical journey north to southwards.

Almost like a documentary type of film. But A Touch of Sin seems to be the perfect way. This seems to be a perfect way to tell the story in A Touch of Sin, starting from Shanxi and then southwards to Chongqing, Wuhan in the middle of China, and then to the southernmost province, Guangdong.

And it seems to be a perfect approach to make this film, and it satisfied my original desire to make a film that has this trajectory.

This also matches the way Chinese migrants migrate, the route that migrants move within China, from west to east, and then from north to south. So this is a perfect match to describe the migrant route, and also because of urbanisation, this is actually what's happening in China now. The west of China is less advanced and less wealthy than the east, and also the north is also not as advanced as the south.

Interviewer

So you're very much interested in regional differences? I mean, I get the sense from your answer that what you're after here is some kind of broad picture of the state of things in China. Is that a fair comment?

Jia Zhangke

This indeed is what I've been thinking of doing, is an illustration of the picture in China. Rather than very localised, showing what's happening in the certain small area. This is actually my passion as well.

Interviewer

Now, I couldn't help noticing in the second story, the killer, Zhou San, right?  Zhou San, at one point we see on a ferry, going along the Yangtze River, and it's just a brief sequence, bridging scenes, one of your bridging sequences, linking two stories.

And he's on this ferry, travelling to the next place. I couldn't help noticing that one of the other passengers on the ferry seemed very familiar. It looked very much like a figure that we had seen in your earlier film, Still Life. Sanming in fact, the main character in Still Life.

Did my eyes play a trick on me?

Jia Zhangke

You weren't mistaken. That was correct. Yeah, what you remember and what you saw was exactly correct, and actually it's deliberate. I did this because I wanted... how the camera moves, pans from one person to another, is actually almost like a transition from this person's story, his life, to another life. To another person's life.

Interviewer

I think this is probably the cue for us to look at a little bit of Still Life, to remember your earlier film. Let me just ask you first, your first three films, that is, Xiao Wu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures, were all made in your home province, Shanxi. They seem to be very deeply rooted in what's going on - what was going on at that time - in Shanxi.

Then after that you made, the next two films you made were not in Shanxi, but they did involve people from Shanxi in other places. So in The World, you had people from Shanxi in Beijing, or anyway working in a theme park somewhere, probably Beijing.

Then in Still Life, the next one, you have this man, Sanming, from Shanxi who has traveled all this way south, down to the Yangtze, looking for his ex-wife. Can you say something about why you needed to stick so closely to Shanxi or people from Shanxi?

Jia Zhangke

Of course that's partly because it's my hometown, but I also feel that Shanxi is also a representation of many Chinese, big Chinese cities. It itself is not unique. There are many things that happened in Shanxi, or can be a representation of many other Chinese cities. I think that's a very good representation.

Also I feel that Shanxi as a place, and also Shanxi's people, have been largely ignored by film industry on screen. It's been largely ignored. But to me, Shanxi is China, and Shanxi's people are Chinese people.

Interviewer

Okay. Let's see a person from Shanxi coping with life on the Yangtze River. In case you haven't seen Still Life, I've chosen a clip from very near the beginning of the film. There's no story, there's no backstory you need to know before you see this.

The film is in four chapters, like the film you've just seen in fact. The film is in four chapters, and the first one is called Cigarettes, and this one is the beginning of Cigarettes. Sanming, the character who you may have glimpsed in Touch of Sin, has just arrived in the town of Fengjie.

Fengjie is being demolished in order to prepare for the opening of the Three Gorges Dam, which is going to flood this entire area. The town has to be demolished, partly to recycle some of the building materials, but also to make sure that the waterway remains navigable. Because if there are standing buildings just under the water, ships will run aground on them.

So, the whole town, very surreally, is being demolished. Let's just have a look at - it's only three, four minutes from the beginning, or near the beginning of Still Life.

[Clip of Still Life]

Interviewer

Now, I have to ask you first about the beginning of that clip. This little hoodlum type who's in the boarding house at the beginning, is watching some John Woo film on television.

Jia Zhangke

Yes.

Interviewer

He's watching A Better Tomorrow, if I'm not mistaken, with Chow Yun Fat lighting a cigarette from a banknote, something that he copies.

Now I remember that in Platform, the very end of Platform, your second film, Wang Hongwei, your regular actor, he's married, he's a defeated middle aged man, is slumped in the chair at home with... we don't see what he's watching on television, but we can hear the sound. I think that's also a John Woo film.

Jia Zhangke

Yes.

Interviewer

So this is the second time that somebody has watched John Woo on television in your movies. Have you got something against John Woo?

Jia Zhangke

That's because I love John Woo too much. During my adolescent years in secondary school, something started to happen in Shanxi, in my hometown, and that was places where you watch video tapes.

During those six years, I had watched a vast amount of films from Hong Kong, gangster films, from Hong Kong and Taiwan. That made up a very major part in my film watching experience. And amongst them, John Woo's films were my favourite.

Interviewer

The Killer?

Jia Zhangke

The Killer, yeah. That included The Killer.

The reason that I liked those films was because it depicted unpredictability in human lives, and also the pressure, the crisis, during survival. And actually, in subsequent films, those were my major concerns, what I looked at.

It's only that, not until A Touch of Sin that I actually gave them a gun to put in their hands. To me, A Touch of Sin is also something of this gangster film sort. To fight your way in the wild, in the wild, wide world is actually part of that, part of a gangster film, part of what a gangster film is about.

A major theme, a very common theme in gangster films or in martial arts films, was about a person fleeing from crisis, or fleeing from their fate. In many of the movies, in many of the films I had watched, there were people hiding and then sending people, smuggling people across the strait to Hong Kong or to Taiwan.

That would really move me to tears, because to me, that is life. Departure, parting from one's family, friends, the emotional impact of people. I'm interested in these issues, but in the beginning, I didn't know how to start making A Touch of Sin. Inspiration was from martial arts films, actually.

To me, actually, it's quite similar. The story that I tell in A Touch of Sin, are very similar to martial arts films, is about personal crisis and under the atmosphere of rapid changes, how someone is under pressure and tries to fight their way against this pressure, tries to resist with violence.

Most martial arts films were period drama, period or costume films, about the past, about ancient times. So I thought if I could use the same approach, but apply that in a modern film, in a contemporary film...

I think to fight violence with violence is not a very good idea. But I admire people who resist, who try to fight back. And in John Woo's films, you see a lot of people who fight, who fight back.

Interviewer

One small thing about that. You appear in the film very briefly yourself, I think.

Jia Zhangke

Yes.

Interviewer

And not for the first time, you play a kind of bad guy. It's one of the things you have in common with Hou Hsiao-Chen, the Taiwan director. When he appears in his films, he always plays a gangster. And he's quite frank that this is somehow a reflection of his very, shall we say, misspent youth. He was a bit of a tearaway when he was younger. I mean, surely that's not true of you too?

Jia Zhangke

I wasn't like that, but that happened to many of my friends. I know them very well.

Interviewer

Okay, good.

Jia Zhangke

So this particular character or this role, I reserved that to another Chinese director. He was also my compatriot from Shanxi as well. I noticed that he always had a gold necklace around his neck. I really wanted him to be in that, but I couldn't find him when I was shooting this, and I was the only person in Guangdong who spoke the dialect, Shanxi dialect. Therefore, I had to appear in it.

This linguistic issue had also been one of the things that we had debated long about A Touch of Sin, because it happened the stories were from four different places. I had been considering whether or not to use dialects in the film. In the beginning, I thought this would be too confusing, too much, but in the end I thought this was the right way.

I like using dialects, because it represents a local area, a place. So it shows the color and the flavour of that place. The usage of dialects is also a language barrier between people from different parts of China, and it creates a barrier and a distance between people.

I forgot to mention that because dialects is actually the mother tongue of people, people use dialects as their mother tongue, so there's a lot of flavour in it. So a lot of tension will be created due to this barrier to communication. It's the same as my experiences in London, the one word or the two words that I use most to taxi drivers are "pardon, please".

Interviewer

It's not only these factors that affect people, the stresses and regional differences and that kind of thing. I think we're going to take another short break now and look at another little clip. This is from a short film you made two years after Still Life.

The film is called, in English, it has a wonderful title in English. Those of a certain age will remember the song. It's called Cry Me a River. In Chinese, it's called Heshang aiqing which is sort of similar but not exactly the same. That's Love on the Water or something, Love on the River, it means in Chinese. But Cry Me a River is more evocative, I think.

In this film, two couples, four college friends, classmates, reconvene. They're now two couples, and they've come, I think, for their professor's birthday, to celebrate their professor's birthday on a trip. They've all made a journey to get there.

They find themselves spending some time together and reflecting on what has happened to them in the years since college. Obviously they've not kept closely in touch with each other. I can't remember where it is that they end up, what is the place?

No, no, the setting of the film.

Jia Zhangke

Suzhou.

Interviewer

Suzhou, okay. "Venice of the South," or "Venice of China."

Jia Zhangke

Yes.

[Clip of Cry Me a River]

Interviewer

That film seems to me about being middle aged. It's about beginning to feel middle aged, more exactly. It's about people beginning to feel that their life has not gone quite how they thought it was going to go.

Jia Zhangke

Of course this is a very sad thing, the passage of time. These four people, they met during university years, and then when they next reunited, it was already decades past, so it was sad. But more importantly to me is how people changed by the passage of time.

So when in school, when they were still in school, they had a lot of plans, what they would do later on in life. When they next met, this didn't really happen.

These people were more or less the same age as I am, so probably this could be viewed as an autobiographic work of mine. If you wanted to learn about 1980s China, you could go and see Platform. So this would be about these people ten years later.

Interviewer

Yes, yes. You were invited, I think, to make a film about Shanghai.

Jia Zhangke

Yes.

Interviewer

Because Shanghai was going to host the Asian Games or something, some big sporting event was going to take place in Shanghai. The city wanted some kind of celebration of itself.

Jia Zhangke

Expo.

Interviewer

Oh, the Expo, Shanghai Expo, of course, that's right. But you chose... you took a very idiosyncratic approach. You decided to make a film about people who have left Shanghai for various reasons.

Jia Zhangke

I've always been interested in Shanghai, because pre-1949, Shanghai was the centre, very important city in regards of politics, economics, and culture in China.

Interviewer

And crime.

Jia Zhangke

There had been two mass emigrations, as far as Shanghai is concerned. One was during the war, the break out of the war, many people left Shanghai. Then after the war people came back, but during 1949, that was during the civil wars in China, there was a change of hands in the ruling of China.

So originally it was ruled by the Nationalist Party, the KMT, and then the Communist Party took over. During that period of time, there was another mass emigration as well, so there was twice when people had to part, families were broken up, and this is something that interests me a lot.

The choice of whether to stay or to leave was actually very... was vital as well, was very important. Because when people left, they didn't realize - in 1949 when people decided to leave Shanghai, they never realized that they would never be able to see their families again for more than a decade's time, during the 1960s and for the people who stayed in Shanghai, they never realised that there would be such a turmoil.

In the 1960s, there was the Cultural Revolution. So to that generation, there was no right decision. Or we can say that there was no choice, there was no real choice for people.

Interviewer

The clip I've chosen is a sort of cinephilia clip. I think it's already obvious from what you've been saying about John Woo and other filmmakers that you're a bit of a film fan. Quite a lot of Shanghai, because Shanghai has been traditionally the home to China's film industry. Quite a bit of your documentary, I Wish I Knew, focuses on film issues and film people. And this is one of those examples. This is - you shot this scene in Hong Kong, in 2009. It features an actress, a retired actress, now a very elderly lady, called Wei Wei.

She is probably best known, she appeared in a number of films, and she's a fine and interesting actress in her heyday. But she's best known now for starring in what is arguably the greatest Chinese film ever made, a film called Spring in a Small Town, which by happy coincidence is getting some kind of extended run in the National Film Theatre next month, in June. So this is by way of being a brief introduction to next month's tribute to Spring in a Small Town by Fei Mu.

[Clip of I Wish I Knew]

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