A Touch of Sin Director Jia Zhangke
Tackling Taboos, Because of Love
In this exclusive interview acclaimed filmmaker Jia Zhangke discusses the plight of ordinary people in an age of growing income disparity, and the need for artists brave enough to speak out.
Tackling Taboos, Because of LoveBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 543 )
Few movies produced in the world of Chinese cinema directly probe into violence like director Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin does.
However, the violence is just the surface of this film. Chinese director Jia Zhangke, 44, focuses his lens on the ordinary people of China during this time of social and economic transition, interweaving four stories based on news items to try to understand why humble individuals with no way out resort to extreme measures in response to the world.
"Welcome to a Fortune 500 company," is probably the most provocative line from the movie for Taiwanese audiences. Because at the film's dénouement, the lead character, Xiao Hui, leaps to his death from the roof of the Foxconn employee dormitory.
However, through Jia Zhangke's lens the audience understands what drives Xiao Hui to leap, after becoming familiar with the loneliness and the stifled oppression the assembly line workers feel.
Those are feelings every Taiwanese businessman and executive should confront.
Showing people about human nature and awakening them from their indifference through the power of cinema helped earn A Touch of Sin Best Screenplay honors at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, as well as six Golden Horse nominations. In the words of director Ang Lee, the film is "very brave and powerful."
Yet precisely because it presents the social realities of great wealth disparity, injustice and desperation, despite selling film rights to 41 countries and being shown all across Europe and North America, A Touch of Sin can still not be shown in China.
Confidence in China's Forward Momentum
On March 6, Jia arrived in Taipei to attend A Touch of Sin's premier screening in the Chinese world, and spoke with CommonWealth Magazine the following day.
Encountering Jia Zhangke up close, one finds that this major director and producer of brave, stirring films, is an affable, optimistic person.
He relates that, up to a week prior to his visit to Taiwan, he had been in communication with the PRC government regarding the public showing of the film. "In many respects, Chinese society has gone backwards over the course of my coming of age. However, in a general sense it has built up irreversible forward momentum. And all of our confidence is based on this." According to Jia, he made such a painful film out of love, because he wanted to see change take place.
Asked what was the greatest setback he experienced growing up, he surprisingly answered it was failing to get into university initially, and wasting three years of idle time before finally getting into the Beijing Film Academy. "I could never pass mathematics," he offers somewhat sheepishly. When this reporter informed him that Ang Lee had the same kind of trouble solving math, and only scored 0.67 on his university entrance examination, he burst out laughing and, feeling encouraged, said, "Then I'm not so bad. At least I scored in the teens!"
Perhaps it is that sort of optimistic streak that gave him the courage to look squarely upon the indignities ordinary people suffer, and refuse to ignore the collective silence behind individual violence.
Following are highlights from the interview:
I invested a lot of hope in the making of this movie. While filming it I thought about the difficulties that might confront me in the future, but I couldn't let that stop me. If we avoid touching this sort of thing and pushing forward, the social environment and the motion picture establishment would never progress. One has to do what is right, and accept the difficulties and risks that come with it.
Chinese Society Must Not Run from Pain
Everyone talks about the establishment, the system and censorship, but one must not underestimate the masses' own resistance. For instance, in the film the public is indifferent and numb, and only the male protagonist seems outraged at injustice. This is a worrisome issue across Chinese society today, that public awakening has come a bit late. Such issues as individual rights and the widening wealth gap do not seem to faze people much.
I find this frightening. Under this sort of situation it is even more necessary for art to have an impact on awareness. Since so many people lack awareness, cinema should awaken their sleeping sense of justice, or their awareness. That is the value of art.
We avoid so many things in our lives. Just like in the film, because they are so unpleasant. Those are painful things, so we avoid them. But we don't really understand them.
Although the four storylines are based on news items, the information available from a news angle is limited, so it desperately needs artists, including the writer and director, and their ability to present the narrative in a new way.
It is only through such new narratives that we can gain a new understanding of why these incidents take place, and an understanding of human nature.
While sharing and receiving the narrative, only by becoming immersed in various complex situations can the audience get to know society and human nature. This day and age desperately needs artists to have the kind of tough nerves it takes to face a complicated world.
There is a constant stream of movies on all kinds of oppression and wealth disparity coming out of the West, but for me the biggest difference is not the narrative approach; rather, when we are confronted with big social issues and the question of human nature, Asians lack the West's process of understanding a theme through incessant pursuit, generation after generation.
Taking World War II for instance, (Hollywood) keeps making films reflecting on the Nazis. However, in Oriental society we are apparently hesitant to touch this sort of thing, presuming there has already been enough discussion and sufficient understanding. Perhaps this is due to the different paces of democratic progress among societies around Asia, so that citizens' interest in the whole system varies over the course of this process.
Perhaps in Europe and North America more attention is paid to what is going on in the overall cultural system and social order. And maybe we are not as culturally self-aware as we should be.
Imagining the Way to the Truth
A number of critics have said that one can get to know China through my movies. The same is true for me; I try to understand China by making movies.
I'm not some kind of genius that had a great grasp of China right from the start. Everyone is subject to limitations in their daily life, as well as blind spots in consciousness. When you capture a perspective from which to observe society, you can enhance your understanding through the creative process.
When so many news events transpired, I didn't understand them or know what was going on, and really believed that they were isolated incidents. The country is so large and so populous, and all sorts of situations arise as different eras come and go, so you don't really pay much attention to it all. But as time goes by, you begin to feel like something is not right, that there is something wrong with this era – that it is ill.
What is the matter? I am not sure, myself. I approached this subject with great intensity, throwing myself into gathering information on these characters, and especially when it came time to immerse myself in my imagination, I felt that was when I finally got close to the truth.
I think imagination is critical. Sometimes we say that these are true events, but the most important things are really established on one person's imagination of another's situation, or their empathetic understanding of it. This is a creative secret, a rule, and I have only really come to understand China through my own creative process.
What I find most frightening about this society is that people just accept the way things are, and enter a state of self-censorship. Self-censorship exists not just among artists, but can take place anywhere, in any given field or industry.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman