Can China’s Leading Indie Film Director Cross Over in America?
A ChinaFile Conversation
Chinese writer and director Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin won the prize for the best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Though the dialogue and its fine translation and English subtitles by Tony Rayns are exemplary, I found that as the screening room lights came up I was left thinking most about what the film does not say.
A Touch of Sin will have its North American premiere on September 28 at the New York Film Festival and will go on to a limited release by distributor Kino Lorber on October 4 in New York, October 11 in Los Angeles and November 15 in Chicago.
As many of Jia’s previous films have done—Platform, in particular, rushes to mind—A Touch of Sin leaves plenty of silent time and space from which the audience must draw conclusions about that which they’ve just eyewitnessed. Jia’s new work is a powerful, fictionalized weaving together of the true stories of three recent murders and a suicide that took place across China. These are brutal and sad stories about which American audiences will have heard little or nothing. A Touch of Sin is important in that regard. It tackles the violence of China’s society head on.
But Jia leaves out what happens to killers after their crimes. As such, I can’t wait to see Jia during his live public appearance at the Asia Society in New York on September 30, a visit that will afford Gotham’s committed audience of sino- and cinephiles a chance to ask him why he skipped that part of the discussion of crime and punishment in China, the country that, according to the Dui Hui Foundation, executes more human beings each year than any other on earth.
Don't get me wrong: Jia's focus in A Touch of Sinon the conditions that drive each of the film’s four protagonists to their bloody deeds is a courageous use of the medium. In China, citizens often are impugned or punished for using mass media to expose the injustice that often drives people to violence. The mere making of the film challenges the facade of harmonious society that Chinese authorities labor to maintain.
But I was left wondering if Jia left out the capture, trial and punishment of the killers in the film because a frank portrayal of China’s criminal justice system is still too sensitive for the censors?
Perhaps. In recent days China’s popular weibo microblogs have hosted an outpouring of discussion of the execution of an impoverished street vendor who claimed he killed in self defense. Threads of the heated online discussion have touched upon the case of Gu Kailai, the powerful businesswoman who was sentenced to prison for murder, thus escaping the death penalty, just like her husband, Bo Xilai, who last week got life in jail for corruption, abuse of power and bribery.
Because A Touch of Sin shines a harsh light on different levels of despair at different rungs of China’s socio-economic ladder, I, for one, will be surprised if the graphically gory two-hour-and-five-minute film makes it on to screens in mainland China in its entirely, escaping the censors blade.
“Thanks for your concern,” Jia wrote to inquiring fans on weibo on September 26. “The domestic release team and I have been trying since May to release A Touch of Sin in China, yet it is an extremely complicated task. Almost ninety percent of our efforts are focused on domestic release. The film is projected to be released domestically in November, and we're still striving for this.”
That A Touch of Sin is getting a release at all in the United States is an accomplishment. The violence and despair at injustice at the heart of the film could put viewers in mind of the raging American gun-control debate. If A Touch of Sin sparked even a little bit of American identification with the discussion of crime and punishment going on a world and an Internet away I'd call it a hit.
By the 1930s the intolerable quality of life and the inefficiency, corruption, and conservatism of the Kuomintang had driven nearly every serious creative writer in China to the Left. Most turned toward some form of Marxism, which not only offered the most convincing explanation...
A central crisis in modern Chinese letters has been caused by the need to take account of Western forms. Some writers adjusted eagerly to Western literature out of a sincere admiration for Western culture; some grudgingly, out of a total rejection of China’s own “feudal”...
Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...