One of the great contemporary Chinese filmmakers is currently Jia Zhangke, who made A Touch of Sin (2013), one of my favourites of the decade. His interest in small people dwarfed by huge government building programmes or infrastructure projects seems to run through his films, and is certainly evident in the screenshots (seen here) of the three narrative feature films (and one documentary) I’m reviewing in this post, all from the 2000s. However, more than that, they seem to be about people who are alienated from their society, or otherwise find difficulties in being connected, people who slip out of the system or are trying to keep in touch despite enormous societal changes going on around them.
This is a simple film too, straightforward in its emotional appeal to the audience by telling a gentle story of an ageing family maid, Ah Tao, and her increasingly close relationship with the family’s unmarried son Roger (Andy Lau) as she gets ever older and more precarious. It does a good job of toning down the more saccharine sentimentality that could have taken hold, favouring instead slow-moving compositions over wordiness or plinky-plonky muzak. At first Roger keeps Ah Tao distant, eating the food she cooks him without much ceremony, but after she has a stroke and must retire from her work, he finds himself taking greater care of her. In some ways, the story goes where one might expect, but it’s a pleasant, undemanding watch all the same.
Director Ann Hui 許鞍華; Writers Susan Chan 陈淑贤 and Roger Lee 李恩霖; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力爲; Starring Deanie Ip 葉德嫻, Andy Lau 劉德華; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 December 2015.
It feels like it’s been a long road for me towards appreciating director Jia Zhangke’s films properly since his first film Xiao Wu (1997), but Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin) was up there at the top of my year’s favourite films of last year. This new one also takes a multi-part approach to storytelling, but rather than four separate (if interwoven) stories, here it’s three focusing on the same characters but over time (1999, 2014 and 2025). It’s very easy to recount the key ideas which Jia is going for here and make them seem banal — I think we’ve all become familiar now with films that look at technology and social media as symptomatic of a modern social disconnection that we have from one another as people. With respect to China, there’s also a link made here with westernisation and capitalism, which makes the choice of the song with which the film opens and closes (“Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, accompanied by a delightful dance sequence) seem somewhat inevitable. And yet none of this is really quite as obvious while the film is playing: it’s instead a gentle and at times subtly harrowing story of a woman growing up in provincial China (Zhao Tao), the man she marries (Yi Zhang) whose life is dedicated to wealth-creation (leading him first to Shanghai and then Australia), and their son (Daole, or “Dollar”, played by Zijian Dong), who grows up with his father after the parents split, and finally has troubling reconnecting with his mother. Each of the three time periods is presented in a different aspect ratio, which lends further artfulness to the presentation. The long final stretch set in the future is probably the most challenging (not least because the characters all speak in English, Daole having lost the ability to speak his native tongue, and because Yi Zhang’s old-age look is so transparently unconvincing), but it’s also the most fascinating section, whereas the 1999 sequence has a sort of bright sheen of hopefulness (and even, dare I say it, a hint of televisual melodrama). It’s a strong work, if not my favourite of Jia’s recent output.
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 賈樟柯; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力为; Starring Zhao Tao 赵涛, Yi Zhang 张译, Zijian Dong 董子健, Sylvia Chang 張艾嘉; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Thursday 8 October 2015.
Jia Zhangke has proven himself over the last two decades to be one of China’s most intriguing directors, beginning with the microbudget, underground Xiao Wu (1997). He may have graduated to ‘official approval’ for his filmmaking, but his vision of modern China is still unsettling enough that this latest film has had trouble in being certificated for its local market. That might be attributed to the more forceful exegesis — it takes its form from four interwoven stories which are bookended by bloody acts of brutal violence — but really it’s more likely to be related to the way this violence is contextualised within contemporary society. If it’s not specifically a Chinese malaise that causes this violence, locating it there and basing it on real events, torn as it were from the headlines (or rather, the social media), can’t have been helpful. That said, this isn’t a documentary or even a docudrama: it has a very cinematic sweep, with much of its violence more indebted to traditional cinematic forms (wuxia for example, as hinted by the title’s evocation of A Touch of Zen) than to real life. It’s also simply beautiful to look at.
There’s a category of films — arthouse films, let’s be fair — where my initial fairly positive reaction on watching it in the cinema is quickly eclipsed by the way it builds in my mind afterwards. A Touch of Sin is a strong example of this tendency. I certainly liked and admired it when I saw it, but the more I think about it, the more I think this is one of the great films of the past year. It’s a film that doesn’t just deploy bloody violence, it’s a film that’s about that violence, about the way that violent responses are sometimes desired, sometimes forced on us, sometimes the only perceptible way forward.
The four stories concern first an embittered villager (Jiang Wu) whose complaints about official corruption are ignored and then met with violent retribution; a sadistic itinerant worker and father (Wang Baoqiang) who seems to enjoy killing people when given the chance and so makes chances for himself by committing a street robbery; a young man (Luo Lanshan) who is rebuffed in love and left unprotected by his workplace when an accident happens; and finally a young woman (Zhao Tao) whose adulterous liaison with another man is discovered by that man’s wife, and who then is mistaken for a prostitute.
This simple recounting of the four characters’ stories doesn’t really convey the way that societal pressures exert themselves, though. It’s a thoroughgoing critique of the helplessness felt in the face of incomprehensible bureaucratic restrictions, the mediated allure of vigilantism, the dangers of inadequate worker protections in sweatshop environments, and the tolls of commodified sexuality. There’s no preachiness though, or moments of explanation; everything is conveyed through the narrative, and it’s a tour de force of really engaged political filmmaking.
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力为; Starring Jiang Wu 姜武, Zhao Tao 赵涛, Wang Baoqiang 王宝强, Luo Lanshan 罗蓝山; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Monday 2 June 2014.