There’s a tendency among recent Chinese independent filmmakers to use classical popular novels in order to address issues affecting contemporary society. Longing for the Rain, Yang Lina’s first feature film, was originally based on a surreal story derived from Pu Songling’s novel, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Liao Zhai Zhi Yi, 1640-1715). Li Luo’s Emperor Visits the Hell, in which the filmmaker invites local artist friends in Wuhan to perform a quasi-gangster story, is adapted from three chapters of Journey to the West, and experiments with text and image relationships to depict a more sophisticated take on various types of “kings” in contemporary China. And although “indie” is no longer a position Jia Zhangke identifies with, his most recent film A Touch of Sin also follows this trajectory, suggesting a contemporary remake of Water Margin (Shui Hu Zhuan, 1972), an epic novel of 108 outlaws who are forced to kill and flee and gather at Mount Liang.
While the Chinese title’s literal translation is Destined by the Heaven, the English language version pays tribute to A Touch of Zen (1971) by King Hu, best known for his wuxia (martial arts) films. Both Jia’s and Hu’s films, coincidentally or not, won considerable recognition when they debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. The four stories in A Touch of Sin are all based on news reports that were widely circulated and debated on the Internet, especially on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. On Jia’s own Weibo account, which has over 8.8 million followers, the filmmaker has constantly retweeted breaking news concerning the social and political issues of the nation, such as welfare and social justice. He also once had an argument with an economist on setting a quota of imported films in the domestic market and the enforcement of cultural exceptionalism of cinema in France. Clearly he’s worried.
Even though these stories were pulled from news reports from all over the country, A Touch of Sin is still a personal film for Jia. The theme of mobility, his directorial signature, can be traced through his entire career, and the four loosely connected stories follow the director’s personal migration in China: from Shanxi to Chongqing, Hubei, and Guangdong, respectively. Shanxi is his home, where he shot his “hometown trilogy” (Xiao Wu, Platform, and Unknown Pleasures); Wuyong (Useless), his documentary about high-end fashion designer Ma Ke, was shot in 2007 in the context of the globalized manufacturing industry in the city of Guangzhou; and 24 City, documenting and reenacting the living memory of the laid-off working class, was shot one year later in Chongqing. Hubei is the only place that Jia hadn’t visited before.
Last month, Jia visited New York for the 51st New York Film Festival, where A Touch of Sin was a main selection, and we sat down to talk about the influence of classical Chinese literature.
Zhou Xin (Rail): Can you talk a little about the character Xiaoyu’s hairstyle? It looks old-fashioned.
Jia Zhangke: The costume can be attributed to two reference points. The first one is King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, which was the inspiration for the hairstyle and the costume choice. The concept is that we used modern costumes, but the combination of the clothes produces an ancient sense. The other reference is Lin Chong’s costume when he is at court in the Peking Opera Forests of the Wild Boars. Red pants, very striking. I really like the costume. White clothes and red pants. Speaking of the other two main actors, Jiang Wu’s costume is based on Lu Zhishen’s clothes, and Wang Baoqiang’s on Wu Song’s clothes. [Lin Chong, Lu Zhishen, and Wu Song are all characters in Water Margin.]
Rail: Wang has a knitted hat with a red Chicago Bulls logo.
Jia: Yes, yes. But that is also a modern garment. Perhaps it’s for my personal interest—I really wanted these people to have a sense of histories. To some degree, we’re losing the essence of the people in traditional Chinese opera. I’ll say that A Touch of Sin is a film about anti-violence, a reflection of violence, a film that hopes violence will not transpire. But I’ll still encourage a kind of rebellious character. Rebellion doesn’t need to be executed with violence, and I’ve always admired this sense of rebellion. There’s a lot of rebellion in Water Margin.
Rail: They rode horse in ancient times, and now it’s high-speed railway, motorcycle.
Jia: Yeah, it’s still like drifting in the rivers and lakes, but the vehicles have changed.
Rail: In what way is telling four stories together a way of representing the general condition of society?
Jia: Every single story in this film could become a movie of its own, though each story seems a little contingent upon the others. Zhao Tao’s character seems very unlucky. She happens to meet these two bad guys. Anything can happen in this world and every case seems accidental. However, as these cases happen every time, it’s obvious that it’s not just an accident. That’s why I put four stories together and used multi-narrative to represent this contingency.
Rail: Then why four, not seven, or ten? Or another documentary to present the condition of a community?
Jia: I don’t think documentary is the right medium to discuss violence. Filmmakers can’t be on the scene when violence takes place. Only the people who experienced it know what really happened. So you need imagination to fill the gap. Another question is how violence is regularly produced in everyday life. It’s kind of an invisible emotion, and it’s very difficult to grasp in front of the camera so it needs to be constructed. Therefore, this film works better as a fictional story. This is also related to the length of the film. If you shoot six stories, the film is going to be three hours long. It’ll be challenging in terms of labor and resources, and for the viewers. I wrote the script as a complete story, using the traditional narrative arc of beginning, middle, twisting plots, and end. That’s why I need four stories to follow the narrative.
Rail: I see more realist elements in the three male characters’ parts, while your imagination takes off in Zhao Tao’s part. Her performance made the film’s connection with martial arts films very clear. So why the plot twists in her story?
Jia: That’s because her part is the golden section of the film, the push of the narrative. It’s too much like a martial arts film if we start this in the beginning. The first three stories build up the plot, and Zhao Tao’s part is the twist, pushing it further. It’s also related to the location of her story. The story of Xiaoyu was shot in Hubei, and we decided to shoot it in Shennongjia. Once we got there, it looked like an ancient place, no different from medieval times. The landscape looks like placing the set of a Shaw Brothers’ film in reality. Aesthetically it’s more pure and clear, so the space itself doesn’t look like real at all.
Rail: I want to ask your opinion about the emergent independent filmmakers in China. Yulu, which you produced and co-directed, premiered in YunFest, which went underground this year. And you just finished jury duty for the Heaven Pictures Indie Cinema Fund, a new indie cinema fund in Beijing, originally initiated by Zhang Xianmin, the former president of the China Independent Film Festival.
Jia: Most of the works I saw recently are still rough cuts. There’s a piece called Night by Zhou Hao from Chengdu, and another one called Cavalier, both are works-in-progress. I think the sensibility is still sharp, including the playful style. But my comment for one of the films was that it utilizes a good sensibility, but plain methods. The filmmaker has an idea, a very good idea, but the process he uses to realize this idea is very crude. There is a lack of delicacy in the way he uses classical narrative, how he processes it, and the way the narrative proceeds. Another problem is that China is short of a movie industry for indie cinema. The production standard of indie cinema constrains its creativity. You can have a very good idea, but the industry that is supposed to support this idea is just not there. So I believe it’s urgent to call upon indie cinema as an industry. Most of the Chinese independent filmmakers work by themselves. There is no team behind them. It’s very lonely. If they had the right resources, the right artistic director, or the right people to support them—
Rail: It would be difficult for Chinese indie filmmakers to make something futuristic—it’s usually more about the past, memory, etc.
Jia: I believe that on one level, the budget determines the aesthetic choices. The amount of money you have, and the level of production that you can reach actually determines your imagination. It’s going to be difficult if you want to make a war film, or a sci-fi film. So we need a better industrial system for indie cinema. System might not be the right word—maybe an industrial structure.
Rail: But they might not be interested in this.
Jia: Of course. But somehow we’re going to deal with more people. If you stay where you are, you’re not going to have too many aesthetic possibilities. Cinema is also an industrial product.
A Touch of Sin opened on October 4.
XIN ZHOU is a curator and writer, currently working on the film program for the 2nd Shenzhen Independent Animation Biennale (December 2014 - March 2015). He has curated programs and exhibitions at Anthology Film Archives, UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art, and The Wooster Group. His writing has appeared in Artforum.com.cn, Film Comment, and Modern Weekly. zhouxin.co