Jia Zhangke’s ‘A Touch of Sin’ Premieres in Cannes

Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke‘s A Touch of Sin (天注定) screened today at the Cannes Film Festival, where it is being considered for the “Golden Palm,” the prestigious festival’s highest prize. Today’s Cannes round-up from Indiewire has the trailer:


The Guardian’s first look at the film gives a synopsis:

[…T]he film is […] an angry, painful, satirical lunge into what the director clearly sees as the dark heart of modern China, and a real attempt to represent this to audiences elsewhere in the world. He sees China as a globalised economic power player suffering a new and violent Cultural Revolution of money-worship in which a cronyist elite has become super-rich in the liquidation of state assets, creating poisonous envy in the dispossessed who hear all about others’ wealth from the internet, and are supposed to gossip aspirationally about it on their mobile phones. A key scene in the film shows someone brooding over Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

It is a fractured and divided story, like shards of a shattered mirror. Different strands and characters and stories emerge, tangentially concerned with each other. Jia has taken his plotlines from newspapers, violent stories of criminal despair, and by meshing them together, these tales, often involving guns, build up a picture of China as a desolate Wild West of lawless violence and cynicism. A worker erupts with anger at how the mine-chief has somehow been able to afford a sports car and to lease a private plane. Three brothers coming back to their hometown for their mother’s birthday reveal themselves to be deeply unhappy in various ways, and the unhappiness somehow always manifests itself in violence. Two have handguns: one casually slays three guys who have attempted to rob him on the road. Another, who has been telling his wife he has been travelling the country looking for work, reveals himself to be an ice-cool armed robber who doesn’t scruple to murder women in cold blood for their expensive designer bags. Another is having an affair with a sauna receptionist (played by Jia’s longtime leading actor Zhao Tao) and this too ends in a bloody confrontation.


The Hollywood Reporter looks at one Chinese web-user’s reaction to the trailer of a film that, “based on true events,” uses the drama of national news to inspire a scathing cinematic inquiry into modern Chinese society:

One Weibo user described the film as seeming “very audacious,” adding: “Judging from the trailer, it contains a lot of critical scenes based in reality that were created with no fear of the censorship system.”

Little was previously known about Jia’s film, but the trailer hints at several storylines based on widely discussed — but never filmed — Chinese social ills and political scandals, such as a notorious case from Hubei province in 2009, when a pedicurist named Deng Yujiao stabbed and killed a local bureaucrat after he reportedly slapped her in the face with a wad of cash and tried to force himself on her (based on the trailer, Jia’s wife and muse, Zhao Tao plays a woman placed in a similar predicament). Another scene features snippets of news footage from the 2011 high-speed train accident in China that killed 40 people and led to a major scandal over mismanagement of the country’s railway ministry – and yet another mentions Chinese laborers killing themselves in sweatshops, a likely reference to the wave of suicides that took place at the factories of Foxcon, the company known as the assembler of the Apple iPhone.


The putative use of sensitive headlines to inspire a film that is, by many accounts, filled with the pulp violence of a Tarantino flick, begs a question — what will Beijing’s censors make of this film? The Globe and Mail reports on Jia Zhangke’s confidence that his film, co-produced by a state-funded company, will hit screens in the mainland:

Of course, a Cannes premiere is no guarantee the film won’t get banned: It happened to Lou Ye’s 2006 Cannes competition film, Summer Palace. But Jia’s film has a couple of things in his favour. A Touch of Sin (the title alludes to a 1971 martial arts film, A Touch of Zen) is co-produced by Jia’s production company and the state-backed studio, Shanghai Film Group, which virtually assures its release.

At yesterday’s press conference, Jia seemed confident his film will be seen by its home audience: “The film has been approved by the censor board and we hope it will be released in autumn.”

In China, where Django UnchainedSkyfall and Cloud Atlas were all recently shown with minor cuts, perhaps officials are finally ready for their homegrown brand of vigilante payback.


More quotes from Jia’s press conference on censorship, sensitivity, and his intended audience were reported by The Record:

Jia — whose film 24 City played at Cannes in 2008 — said he became preoccupied by the increasingly frequent stories of violence he saw in the media, and wanted to dramatize the stories for Chinese moviegoers.

“In society people often hear about these violent events, but they quickly forget,” he said. “It’s not by turning your back on violence or hiding violence that you make progress.”

Jia said he didn’t think the topics he depicted “are particularly touchy or secretive in any way, because they were already covered in the Chinese press and on the internet.”

But the director also was careful to stress — and the censors no doubt happy to hear — that the stories were timeless, not the product of modern politics, economics or technology.


The only Chinese-language film to have won the high prize at Cannes was Chen Kaige’s 1993 masterpiece Farewell My Concubine, and so far Chen is the only Chinese national to have taken the prize.


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