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China’s random acts of violence

Jia Zhangke's latest film makes art of everyday attacks

09·16·2013

Film critic Shelley Kraicer sees Jia Zhangke’s forthcoming film A Touch of Sin as a response to an emergency. The film, which has now been approved for Chinese release this November, deals with the acts of random violence that have bloodied the headlines of today’s China.

China’s most prominent art house director had been preparing to make a big-budget martial arts film when the world of micro-blogs interrupted his vision. China Digital Times reports that news of ordinary Chinese people committing acts of rage – and the surprising degree of sympathy expressed for the perpetrators – set Mr Jia’s plans askew.

In recent years China has been afflicted with spates of knife attacks, babies being grabbed from the hands of parents and smashed to the ground, and buses set on fire by pensioners. But while many are drawn to read the stories of eye-gouging and stabbings, Mr Jia’s interest went behind morbid fascination.

“I slowly began to see the problem of individual violence in society,’ Mr Jia explained to The New York Times. “There are many tragedies or societal problems in which people in the end rebel, resulting in a very big tragedy.

“I feel now with A Touch of Sin, it’s not just an issue of individual emotions, but it is also an expression of the state of the entire nation.”

He said: “I am deeply convinced that if we talk about them [social issues] only through the mainstream media, but not through the language of art, it would be a shame and a lost opportunity.”

The trailer of A Touch of Sin shows the grey China typically shot by the “sixth generation” of Chinese directors. The dialogue – words which won ‘Best Screenplay’ at Cannes 2013 – is beset with references to making money, what things are worth, what people can afford. Triggers are pulled, knives are drawn, blood is splattered liberally. The words ‘Based on true events’ linger on the screen.

The film tells four stories of average people taking their destinies into their own hands, and taking lives along with it. A suicide is committed at a factory resembling Foxconn, the assembler of the Apple iPhone. A miner goes on a shotgun rampage against local leaders. A worker in a massage parlour knifes an abusive customer.

“He’s using cinema now in a way that has parallels with the journalist-songwriters of the early 1960s: progressive radicals like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs who converted the headlines of the day into the lyrics of their songs.” Kraicer told The New York Times.

“Certain things need to be said, and need to be said directly, clearly, to as large, and as activated a Chinese audience as possible.”

It has come to a surprise to many that the film has been approved for Chinese release at all, but Mr Jia said that the film censorship panel made surprisingly light requests. It has been suggested that this light-touch was a result of the narratives of these news events having already reached the general population on the micro-blogs. It therefore seems that the internet has been both the origin of the film and the reason for its screening.

“These stories are a sort of record that cannot be taken back,” Mr Jia said. “It’s a record of reality.”

Most of the mandatory edits required coarse speech to be toned down, changes which Mr Jia could make just in time for the Cannes International Film Festival.

Unsurprisingly, it was also recommended that the film could do with less violence.
Image courtesy of  ‘A Touch of Sin

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