With the recent news that the Beijing Independent Film Festival didn’t so much get shut down as get limply cancelled with barely a whimper, it was hard not to feel sorry for its organizer, Wang Hongwei, who starred in one of the classics of Chinese independent cinema, Xiao Wu. It got us thinking about Jia Zhangke, the man who directed it, and the different career trajectory he has followed. jia zhangke film chinese filmmakers a touch of sin shanghai
Jia’s latest film, the controversial and daring A Touch of Sin, won Best Screenplay at Cannes 2013 and has gained significant coverage in Western media. The stage is set for Jia’s films to break into the mainstream consciousness in the West and at home in China, with the film ‘tentatively’ set to screen in mainland cinemas around November.
So who is this director, and why is he uniquely placed to put Chinese cinema on the map?
Born in 1970 in Fenyang, Shanxi province, Jia is undeniably the leading light of the so-called ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese directors, a term he himself rejects in favour of merely ‘independent filmmakers’. The Sixth Generation, in contrast to the Fifth Generation (which includes Hero’s Zhang Yimou and Farewell My Concubine’s Chen Kaige), exchange color and symbolism for stark realism. This, unsurprisingly, can bring problems.
Jia himself has never explicitly earned the ire of the Chinese authorities. His first three films were never submitted to the Chinese Film Board for release, and were produced largely outside the system. Therefore, technically they are banned - but not due to content.
These films make up a loose trilogy set within his home province of Shanxi. His debut film Xiao Wu is about a local pickpocket in Fenyang and his struggle to adapt to the changing world around him. Jia received much acclaim for the film, which led to Takeshi Kitano (a.k.a. the teacher from Battle Royale) sponsoring production of his next film, Platform, set in the same city. Unknown Pleasures followed, taking place in Datong - a different city within Shanxi.
These early films set out the style that would make Jia such a unique and important contributor to modern cinema. Having a preference for wide-angle shots, his films are characterised by their slow pace and deliberate distance from the individuals within. Often his films can go for some time without much dialogue taking place; “I sometimes think a lot of things are beyond words,” he has been quoted as saying.
"The plots are simple, the people are not, and whilst the action that takes place might not light a Hollywood summer blockbuster, the themes Jia Zhangke explores are among the most powerful in cinema: globalization, loneliness and human kindness."
Most interesting, however, is his attitude towards narrative as a whole. “Telling a story is not what interests me; showing what I feel about time and life is my interest.” As a result, some of Jia’s films can often be summarised briefly. The plots are simple, the people are not, and whilst the action that takes place might not light a Hollywood summer blockbuster, the themes he explores are among the most powerful in cinema: globalization, loneliness and human kindness - themes he continues to explore in his subsequent major releases – The World, Still Life and 24 City. These were all made within the Chinese film system, but still managed to maintain a hard-hitting political message. He explains his motives simply: “Everything’s political; all scenes of the everyday contain political information.”
His latest work takes no prisoners in its overtly political nature. A Foxconn-style suicide, an ‘ultraviolent’ shotgun rampage against corrupt officials (he’s not been compared to Tarantino for nothing, you know) and prostitution all contribute to a film that seems fairly out of line with harmonious society. Oh yeah - and there’s a high speed rail crash thrown in for good measure.
Quite how this will make it to mainland screens we’re not sure, but Jia is adamant that he has the necessary permissions. We’ll believe it when we see it but it may be best to hunt down a DVD copy and get ready for an uncompromising take on modern China.
WORDS BY ED MOON