Tag Archives: Jia Zhangke

A Touch of Sin (China/Japan 2013)

The man who 'can't take it any more' in A TOUCH OF SIN?

Jiang Wu as the man who ‘can’t take it any more’ in A TOUCH OF SIN

Jia Zhangke is one of the most important directors in China and within global cinema. He wrote and directed this film titled carefully to nod towards King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (Taiwan 1971) and his script won the major screenwriter’s prize at Cannes in 2013. Why then has it taken a year to get to the UK and still hasn’t got a Chinese domestic release?

The second question is perhaps easiest to understand since Jia paints a disturbing picture of contemporary China. The Chinese censors have succeeded in stimulating the circulation of pirate copies to significant audiences in China. The problems with UK distribution of anything other than Hollywood blockbusters are well known. I’m glad that Arrow managed to get the film into a few UK cinemas but I fear that they don’t have the muscle to promote it properly. But then Jia isn’t the easiest filmmaker to put before the public. The content of his films often appeals directly to popular audiences but the pacing and contemplative style sometimes cause barriers. But if you can get into the groove, Jia offers both great filmmaking and plenty to think about.

The motorcycle killer taking a boat trip – and reminding us of A STILL LIFE

The motorcycle killer (Wang Baoqiang, on the right) taking a boat trip – and reminding us of Jia’s earlier A STILL LIFE

A Touch of Sin is based on four news stories from the past few years, all discussed on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter (Weibo) but not so readily on official Chinese News channels. Importantly, the stories emanate from Shanxi (North), Chongqing (West), Guangzhou (South) and Hubei (Central) – and not from Beijing or Shanghai (or the most remote parts of the country). This is like a UK film featuring stories from Dundee, Southampton, the East Midlands and North Wales – but not London. The stories are also said to make references to traditional wu xia tales. Much has been made of this apparent shift towards genre filmmaking but the links to Jia’s earlier films are still strongly in place.

The four stories represent the lives of ‘ordinary people’. In one a worker in a town which has effectively been ‘sold’ by a local politician eventually flips and attacks what he sees as the parasites who are destroying opportunities for local people and stealing all the profits. In another, a man who travels hundreds of miles to find work in order to support his ageing mother decides that robbing (and killing) the rich on his travels is more profitable. A woman finds work in a sauna/massage parlour before the behaviour of the guests drives her to violence and in the final story a young man is driven to despair by the alienation of working in a typical Chinese factory making goods for the West.

Zhao Tao as the woman who also reaches the end of her tether in A TOUCH OF SIN

Zhao Tao as the woman who also reaches the end of her tether in A TOUCH OF SIN

Jia allows the stories to overlap (two characters from different stories might pass each other at a road junction or a railway station) so that we get the impression that we are on a roundabout constantly moving through stories about degradation in modern China. The settings for some of the stories are the mundane cityscapes and small town milieu familiar from Jia’s earlier films but they also include some of the more surreal settings Jia has also previously explored – a resort/nightclub with girls dressed in outlandish costumes recalls The World (2004). The inference seems clear – the negative impact of globalised forms of ‘recreation’ alongside the mind-numbing factory work courtesy of contracts for global corporations.

The moments of violence are presented in well-edited action sequences but the overall aesthetic is of the long take and long-shot composition. This, for me at least, is the most distinctive aspect of Jia’s style and I marvel at his ability to compose images with his regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai. The protagonists of three of the four stories are actors I recognised from other Chinese films, including his partner Zhao Tao.

I have no doubt that there was much I missed in the representations of modern China in these four stories. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again when it appears on DVD (September in the UK). Please don’t miss it!

LFF 2012 #1: Memories Look at Me (China 2012)

Song Fang and her mother in Memories Look at Me

Memories Look at Me was a good place to start my visit to the 2012 London Film Festival. Writer-director Song Fang is known to arthouse audiences in the West as the young Chinese film student who appears in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon (France/Taiwan 2007). In this, her first feature, she has Jia Zhangke as executive producer. With two of the leading masters of Chinese cinema as mentors, it isn’t surprising that she has absorbed something from both filmmakers and that this feature seems so confident and composed. Inhabiting that territory between fiction and documentary that features in much of Jia’s work, Memories Look at Me is a meditation on growing up and growing old – and also a critique in many ways of the changing China and, in particular, the one child policy.

Song plays a character like herself, on a visit home to her parents’ small flat in Nanjing. Her real family play themselves (though, presumably, as fictional characters). Almost all the ‘action’ takes place in the flat and this, for me, was the only disappointment in that I would have liked to see more of Nanjing. It was frustrating to be peering through the rain-spattered windows of a car and to be told that a decaying building was the cinema where Song’s parents often went, only for her doctor father to receive an emergency call part way through the film. But then, the film deals with the interior lives of the family members and what they remember as they talk in the confined space of the house.

The film is almost an exercise in restraint and it works very well in allowing us to begin to understand the characters and their circumstances. There are relatively few moments of real drama such as when a neighbour brings the family a chicken which seems then to be kept temporarily in the shower room. Song proves inept at securing the chicken’s legs and we see no more of the bird. I presume that somebody must kill it so that they can eat it?

There are several references to Song as an unmarried woman who has passed 30 and I confess that it might have been interesting to see how she got on with the blind date that her brother and sister-in-law were keen to arrange for her. But this is one of the moments of restraint – nothing more is heard of the idea. The ‘one child’ policy crops up several times, e.g. when Fang asks her mother why she seemed so old when Fang was a child and her mother explains that she was five years older than the other mothers in Nanjing because she had already had Fang’s brother – and all the other mothers only had the one child. Fang’s uncle had no children and so Fang’s brother was important to him and later Fang visits her parents’ friends who are worried about the health of their only child.

I think it is remarkable that a woman in her early 30s should make such a mature film about getting older and realising that you have simply not taken in the import of the things that have happened to your parents’ generation. I wish that I had been that aware and mature at her tender age. Not a film I would recommend for a rollicking Friday night out, but definitely one to savour at a more sober time of the week. I hope this gets a wide distribution.

24 City (China/Japan/France 2008)

Joan Chen plays a worker who is nicknamed ‘Little Flower’, a character from a hit 1979 film starring . . . Joan Chen

Jia Zhangke has emerged as arguably the leading figure of what used to be called the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers – trained in Beijing Film School, but then financed on independent projects by TV money and foreign investment. 24 City was a hit at Cannes in 2008 but wasn’t released until May 2010 in the UK. It marks something of a shift away from his ‘hometown films’ set in the Shanxi region of Northern China discussed in a posting last year by Nick, but sounds similar to Still Life (2006) which unfortunately I missed (but which Nick also reviewed). I’m so glad that I managed to catch 24 City on a cinema screen.

I thought that this was a wonderful film and worth seeing for several different reasons. For film studies it offers a fascinating case study for documentary practice. It is in fact a hybrid form melding documentary witness statements with performances of scripted ‘memories’ and a conventional documentary record. The title refers to a major redevelopment in the city of Chengdu in South-West China, in which a former large aeronautics factory is being dismantled in order to build a new commercial development (shops/apartments?) – to be called ’24 City’ in a reference to a local traditional poem. What gives the metaphor (i.e. capitalist enterprise replaces socialist defence planning) resonance is that the factory originally moved to Chengdu in the 1950s from the North East, bringing 4,000 workers with it and was then set up as a ‘secret’ entity, part of, but separated from, Chengdu itself.

As well as detailing the transformation of the factory site (the production facilities are dismantled and transported to an industrial park outside the city for a new venture) we are offered the personal stories of workers who came to Chengdu at various times over 50 years and learn what life was like in this unusual set-up. But Jia adds to these ‘true stories’ with a quartet of further personal stories ‘performed’ by leading actors (I think that these stories are actually composites put together from over a hundred interviews the production team conducted). The most moving of these is delivered by Lü Liping, a well-known Chinese actor who starred in two well-known Fifth Generation films, Old Well (1986) and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Blue Kite (1993). The other familiar faces are the Chinese-American Joan Chen and Jia’s iconic actor Zhao Tao. Personally, I have no problem with this mixing of ‘real’ and ‘constructed’ witnesses. All witness statements are constructions – they are simply coded as such in different ways. However, many commentators do have problems with this strategy. The other ‘problem’ for some audiences is that the pace is slow and although there are beautifully shot scenes of the factory and work in the last few months of operation, most of the content is of talking heads. The witnesses are shown in long shot/MS as well as MCU and I thought that overall the visual quality of the film was very well thought out and for me added to a riveting watch.

The big question is, of course, what does Jia tell us about the workers (and the managers/contemporary capitalists), the history of the factory and the changes in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) over 50 years? The answer isn’t straightforward. Because of the techniques outlined above, I do think that sometimes the historical detail gets confusing. There are intertitles giving details about each interviewee, but there is still a sense of confusion about when events actually took place. Even the Press Pack is not totally clear on this. My knowledge of Chinese geography and history since 1949 is sufficient to have followed most of the narrative of the film, but I’m still puzzled as to exactly when and why things happened. For instance Jia in the Press Pack tells us that the factory was founded 60 years ago – i.e. before the foundation of the PRC – and that it moved to Chengdu in 1958. It was certainly operating in the early 1950s, making parts for the MiG-15s used by the Chinese and North Koreans in the 1950-53 War with the US and South Korea. Part of the confusion might arise because of a Chinese reluctance to give detailed historical commentary in case it attracts attention from the authorities. In his essay on the film, Tony Rayns suggests that the factory moved because of the rift between China and the Soviet Union in 1956 – i.e. defence manufacture moved further away from the Russian border.

But Jia claims that he doesn’t want to present a straight narrative history, instead he concentrates on personal lives (like Zhang and Zhuangzhuang in their historical family melodramas set in the period 1950-90). This throws up interesting popular culture observations such as the popularity of the Japanese TV series Blood Suspect in the 1980s which made its young stars into role models for Chinese youth. Similarly with Taiwanese pop. I do tend to get uneasy with these kinds of popular memories which often seem to be utilised in an attack on socialist planning and praise of capitalist enterprise. On the other hand, I find the community and ‘official’ mass singing to be nostalgic and quite romantic in its expression of solidarity. There was a tear in my eye to see a group of older female workers sing the Internationale. Overall, I think it best to see this as a poetic documentary about the working process and the flow of industrial history as well as a humanist drama about change in a society that seems at once familiar and alien at the same time. As someone who grew up in the 1950s with a wartime aircraft factory down the road and avoiding gangs of local kids on the streets as I made my way to school, much of this story rang true.

One of the films of the year released in UK cinemas.