Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin is the subject of a feature by Tony Rayns in our September/October issue. In a brief interview at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, the director, writer, and producer discussed his latest work.

A Touch of Sin

Let’s begin with the end. Could you talk about the opera performance that concludes the film—which has the extraordinary line, roughly: “Do you understand your sin”?

The final opera in the film, Yu Tang Chun, is a well-known story in China. It’s about a woman who is unfairly treated and incarcerated, and over the course of the story her lover tries to rescue her. I had seen this story when I was a child, and one of the most affecting scenes in this opera is when the woman is being tried in court. The judge asks her whether she has committed this crime and why she is guilty. When I was writing the script, towards the end of the process I began to think about the opera repeatedly and about the notion of what a crime really is. And perhaps in China, not discussing, or choosing not to discuss, these crimes, can also be a crime within itself.

So you’re just as unhappy about the crimes of the violence as you are about the people not talking about it.

Perhaps, on some level yes, because you’re allowing for it to permeate. Perhaps there’s a deeper rooted issue within the history of Chinese art and cinema as well that there’s a desire to stay away from really dark and violent matters and not confront them directly.

A Touch of Sin

There’s a way in which the violence in A Touch of Sin can feel real and—maybe because of how accustomed a moviegoer is to violence in films—unreal at times.

I think that within the wuxia form, the characters are all imbued with a mysticism. They’re warriors that can fly through bamboo forests and they have special powers. In A Touch of Sin the characters are ordinary people. They don’t necessarily have kung fu skills. When they encounter these acts of violence and begin using their own violence to counteract what was inflicted upon them, they go through a transformation and become like the mystical warriors of the wuxia films. So I’ve treated every instance of violence in the film as though it were a mystical event. Because they’re so surreal and out of the ordinary. Perhaps most of us have never conceived a degree of violence in our quotidian lives. And oftentimes we just learn about the final result of these violent acts through news, but we can’t imagine the process that leads to this result, so it’s all imaginary.

Their violence, though there are specific circumstances, feels like a response to a great amount of violence that’s happening in the country, in small and large ways. There’s a sense in which business, for example, is an inherently aggressive endeavor.

This is why I’ve portrayed the incident of the Wenzhou high-speed bullet train incident in the film. Because I see it as an accumulation of hidden social violence in Chinese contemporary society. It starts from the corruption of the officials and then escalates and finally the two bullet trains collide into each other and create this social catastrophe. And perhaps it doesn’t relate directly to an individual’s destiny, but there is a collective violence that is being played out.

One of my favorite films of yours, which is ambitious in a way distinctive from A Touch of Sin, is Still Life, and I was struck by the difference in style here.

Yes, within Still Life there were two main characteristics that made up the narrative. One was the characters that inhabited the film, and the second was the surrounding area of the Three Gorges Dam. Within that structure I had more people migrating, depictions of people migrating to the location and geography. And therefore there was a need to convey that movement and migration. In Touch of Sin, I was using the wuxia form in order to convey the narrative. Within that form spaces are very important, but within those spaces it’s more important to observe and explore the interaction between the characters. Perhaps the overall feeling of the film would be equivalent to that of a sketch: more immediate and direct, and with less background, which corresponds to the speed of the wuxia film.

A Touch of Sin

What sort of reaction to A Touch of Sin has there been from moviegoers? [The film was scheduled to be released in mainland China in November.]

Mostly, I’m focusing on the reaction of overseas Chinese people, because so far the film has premiered in Cannes, Melbourne, Russia, and because they speak the same language I’ve been able to become more aware of their reaction to the film. And because these four stories are culled from origins from news stories that really happened in China, that were widely discussed and well known among all Chinese people, including those overseas, it was very shocking for people to see the stories enacted in a film as opposed to being discussed through public forum or social media or in the news. Perhaps the question that these audiences had the most was: what happens now? What are some of the answers we might have? Because it’s so disconcerting. Perhaps there was then a certain dissatisfaction that the film hasn’t offered a clean solution to these pertinent issues that are in China right now.

In the beginning I had no idea either how to respond to these questions, and of course I had no answers either. Then I thought about it, and then I answered, I believe in order to understand where we’re going we have to really observe and reflect upon where we are now. Perhaps there needs to be enough exposition but also artistic dialogue and discussion about the entire country and about our individual lives in order to truly observe where we are now and the transition that we’re all going through.

And within these four stories of violence, when I went into the inner worlds of these characters who had experienced these acts of violence, aside from moral issues I believe that there was a sudden mantra that was being formed. Perhaps because the verbal expression of these violent events has been discouraged and stifled among one another, the violent acts become a way of expressing the language of this violence. For instance, almost explicitly within the first story, the character Dahai wants to file a complaint, and everyone tries to stop him from filing this complaint. And so of course the act of violence becomes a direct response to the inability to speak. Or the character who commits suicide from the top of the building—for me, that’s his personal expression in response to the violence.

Violence on himself.


A Touch of Sin

Could you talk about working with your actors? There are shootings, a stabbing, a suicide—how did you prepare them for this material?

Before filming it was very important to me to take each of the actors to the specific locations where the news events happened. All of the main actors in my film live in major cities. For instance, the first male actor in the first story: I took him to the mine in Shanxi province, and he saw what the mine workers ate, drank, where they slept. The dorms would have at least 10 people living in each room. And so before we started filming we would form two main points of discussion: What was it that they felt? And when did they decide upon committing this act of violence? Analogous to a boiling pot of water, what is the boiling point?

And actors will oftentimes have a different understanding of the events and the characters than I do, so they form their own relationships to the roles. For instance in the scene that leads up to Zhao Tao unsheathing the knife and committing that act of violence, the shot of the man stopping her, we had wuxia choreography consult for that scene so she wasn’t really being slapped in the beginning. He couldn’t find it within himself to act that out, so he decided to really hit, and then he told me not to say stop, and so as he kept really hitting the actress, he began to find that strength or that place. So perhaps they gave up a lot in order to perform these roles. The actors will color their roles in their own way as well. For instance the humor in Dahai’s character is all due to the actor.

What film will you work on next?

My next film project is a wuxia film set over a hundred years ago in the Qin dynasty. The appeal of this era for me as a director is that it’s the beginning of China’s modernity.