Is Jia Zhangke a successful director? That depends on your point of view.
His first three films were banned in China. His next four managed to get past the censors but failed to draw big crowds. And his last film, a documentary, also failed to impress, reportedly taking just Rmb5,000 ($816.78) at one cinema in Ningbo. It was pulled after a week.
In contrast, Jia has won a lot of praise from film critics overseas, especially for his latest film A Touch of Sin, which has become a surprise hit outside China after winning the best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival this year. It has also shown to positive reviews at other prestigious film festivals, including New York and Toronto. That helped Jia secure distribution in at least 40 countries, including Italy, Russia and Greece, says Chengdu Business News.
“I’ve been both a follower and an admirer of Jia’s work for many years, but A Touch of Sin struck me like lightning,” says Richard Lorber, chief executive of Kino Lorber, which secured the distribution rights to the movie in the US. “Watching this film was a bracing cinematic experience, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to introduce this bold and unique title to a wide audience in the United States.”
The film, based on true events, tells four interwoven stories of ordinary Chinese, who reach boiling point under extreme circumstances and resort to violence.
One story, which features Jia’s wife and long-time collaborator Zhao Tao, depicts a massage parlour worker who stabs an abusive customer who tries to rape her. WiC readers will recall that the story is reminiscent of a similar case in 2009, when Deng Yujiao, a hotel worker, claimed that she had killed a local government official in self-defence when he and a colleague tried to rape her (see WiC18). Police had originally wanted to charge Deng with murder but backed down in the face of a groundswell of anger from hundreds of thousands of netizens, as well as criticism from the mainstream media.
Jia says that ordinary Chinese people – like the film’s characters – are driven to violence because of their sense of powerlessness and frustration. “These unfortunate events are all because of rapid changes and the economic transformation,” he suggests. “The movie discusses the serious corruption problem, the problem of small groups of people controlling resources and the very big gap between rich and poor. It’s against this backdrop that we see a lot of individuals erupt in violent rebellion,” he told the America radio show All Things Considered.
Jia didn’t tone down the bloodshed in the film and much of the violence breaks new ground for a domestic production.
Critics are surprised that A Touch of Sin survived the censors’ scissors with so few edits.
“I was expecting, ‘Wow, there’s going to be some blowback from this, right?’ How could they allow something so naked and angry to be shown? And I don’t know the answer to that,” says Justin Chang, senior film critic for Variety.
Jia reckons that the authorities gave him the green light because the film was based on real events that were widely reported on microblogs. “Weibo created a space for this movie to be accepted,” he says. “Because of weibo, our understanding of the reality in Chinese society is very different from before, when there was more news censorship.”
Although Jia’s previous work has struggled to attract domestic audiences, he is hopeful that A Touch of Sin could be his highest grossing film yet.
Meanwhile, Jia is also lobbying for the film to be China’s entry at the Oscars next year (another frontrunner is Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster) and he’s even lined up famous filmmakers like Zhang Yimou for public endorsement.
“Although I haven’t seen it, I believe in this film’s power,” says Zhang, somewhat enigmatically.
The movie is scheduled for release in China in November.
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