Filmmaker Jia Zhangke gets real in ‘A Touch of Sin’


Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s “Unknown Pleasures,” “The World” and “24 City” have been celebrated by critics and on the international festival circuit, but his work has yet to break through with a wider audience in America. That might change with his latest, “A Touch of Sin,” an action film of sorts set in contemporary China and opening Friday in Los Angeles.

Where Jia’s earlier works have often blended fiction with documentary, here he overlays the style of traditional martial arts adventure storytelling known as wuxia onto his contemporary four-part tale of loners, revenge and violence based on recent real-life incidents in China. Set in geographically distinct locations and telling the tale of four deaths, the film explores lives of a miner, migrant worker, receptionist and factory worker who all unexpectedly confront violence. (The movie, which won the screenplay prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year, takes its title as a play on King Hu’s iconic 1971 martial arts film, “A Touch of Zen.”)

We caught up with Jia, 43, by phone when he was recently in the U.S. for the American premiere of “A Touch of Sin” at the New York Film Festival.



“A Touch of Sin” does not open in China until November, but you’ve said you feel more interest already around this film in China than your previous work. How so?

I think the two key points of interest for the Chinese public audience are split into that the film portrays these acts of violence in a direct way. And the second is how wuxia pictures, the form of wuxia, has been applied to focus on contemporary events.

In the last few years I’ve noticed these increasingly violent events happening in China. I wanted to make a film about this, but had no cinema language to portray these stories. Last year, I noticed that some of these stories had particular parallels to the stories depicted in King Hu’s films, particularly with themes of migration and portraying characters who had been subjected to acts of violence and corruption that in turn go from being victims to perpetrators of violence.

How did you prepare your actors?

It was very vital for me that all the actors went to live in the exact locations where each event occurred in real life, for at least two weeks. I needed them to be able to create an everyday portrait of the daily life of these characters and also portray that state of emergency of being under threat, that theatricality. ... It helped the actors transform into a state of being both wuxia warriors and tragic figures who are very real.

But the most important aspect was entering into a discussion among everybody about how violence slowly accumulates in our daily lives and surfaces, pushing people to this edge of emergency and violence. These invisible forces put so much pressure on us to act out.

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Your other films are not what anyone would call genre films. What was it like to overlay genre storytelling onto your style?

I graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in the ‘90s, and I did study a lot of wuxia pictures. Since I graduated, I’ve been making movies that have nothing to with wuxia pictures. But I do want to experiment with different genres, I feel that they speak to the social complexities that are mounting more and more in China’s contemporary realities.

When I was in university, I was writing about how all the wuxia films I had seen were indeed political allegories. They portray individuals suffering the pressures and injustices of society, and that brings about a tragic destiny where they have to resort to violence. I see this in direct connection to the state of things now in contemporary China, the social injustices felt by ordinary people who have no means of expressing their state, who must resort to violence to treat violence. It’s a tragic situation that things have not really changed for the destiny of ordinary people. I wanted to open up this discussion.

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So all four stories are based on real events?

These four stories do indeed have roots in real events that happened in China, but I treated them like points of inspiration. It was more for them to be a jumping-off point in imagining the rest of the picture.


Why I chose to portray these four stories versus one story — because each of them could have been a single film — was because I didn’t want it to come across as an isolated incident that occurred to one ill-fated individual. They were all specters of the same grim social realities, so I found it necessary to commit these multiple stories together.

Your other films have mixed documentary with fiction. Does that make them, for you, any more or less real than your new film?

I think frankly this film is even closer to our contemporary reality, because in order to understand ourselves we must be able to imagine.

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Do you feel you are making films for a Chinese audience or a Western audience?

I don’t consider a divide in my audiences. I think ultimately violence is a very human issue, a human problem. It’s not specific to people from a specific country, but also cinema is not confined to a single country. I do not think about these things.


But as your films are seen internationally, for many people they will be important in forming an understanding of modern China.

I do believe that through my films there is a perspective on China, but it is also me trying to understand my current life in China. I think the biggest responsibility I feel toward that is the artistic creations should contain earnestness and an honesty, a freedom to convey truthfulness. I think life is so multifaceted and complex, and through my films I hope to bring to light lesser-seen perspectives on life.