When Twitter and Facebook were blocked by China's authorities, the nation's own microblogging site Weibo took their place as a means for users to share information and debate. Filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s explosive, bloody latest A Touch of Sin dramatises four violent incidents that occurred recently in different parts of China, in which people cornered by corruption and desperation snapped. Downplayed by the mainstream news, these stories had circulated on Weibo, and provoked outrage. We met with the maverick – famed for his bold work about rebels on the fringes of modern urban life – in London before the UK release this week of the film, which won Best Screenplay award at last year's Cannes.
What was it about these stories that'd been circulating on Weibo that made you want to weave them into a film?
Jia Zhangke: In the past, mainstream media was always controlled and very strictly censored by the authorities, but this social networking media has encouraged the discussion of things that happen very locally – things that would never otherwise have been known to the outside world or even beyond small, localised provinces, as China is very populated and vast. In recent years I've been using Weibo. On this site I came across people widely discussing these kinds of spontaneous, violent events, which before I’d known nothing about – events that etched in my mind. I was very interested in what’s behind these stories – the human side of them. I also realised that what happened was very similar to some classic Chinese martial arts stories that we all know about. That inspired my approach to the cinematography, though I'm trying to express something of modern times. I wasn't sure about whether these kind of outbursts have always been frequent occurrences in China; whether they are just now being widely discussed because of the existence of Weibo.
“Extreme behaviour is a way for people to express themselves, when there’s no medium through which they can voice their grievances” – Jia Zhangke
What conclusion did you come to?
Jia Zhangke: These violent events are on the rise. It could partly be due to the rapid change of China's society. The widening gap between rich and poor and uneven distribution of wealth exert huge pressure on people, and drive them to this extreme behaviour. The other cause is the lack of an open communication medium and lack of justice. Extreme behaviour is a way for people to express themselves, when there’s no medium through which they can voice their grievances. There is a natural, hidden tendency of violence in humanity – it’s always existed no matter what the nationality – but the Chinese are very reluctant to face up to that reality and talk about this problem openly, so there's a lack of awareness that it’s part of human nature. It’s something that we should address very openly. I'm particularly concerned about the helplessness of an individual that drives them to such an act.
The story about the pedicure worker who stabbed a local official when he demanded sexual services from her generated over four million forum posts in China. What struck such a chord across the nation?
Jia Zhangke: What really pained me when I read this news story was that this woman had been hit by one of the clients with a pile of cash. He was saying: 'I've got this money, and you must serve me.' Money at that point is power, and with money one can insult. Since the 80s, China has been growing economically, and it's a very sad, tragic thing that money now has this role in our value system. We have always been saying in China that we want to have a society where everyone is equal, but this is the ultimate humiliation one person can inflict on another. I’ve been talking a lot with the actress (Zhao Tao) about what exactly this woman would think and feel in that particular instance. We came to the conclusion that perhaps to her at that moment even God didn't exist, God couldn't help her.
After making a name through low-budget, underground films, you're now working within the state system, but still managing these daring, strong social critiques. How did you get the consent to make A Touch of Sin, if these stories are being repressed in the actual news?
Jia Zhangke: As a director, I have always wanted to have an open environment for creative art, and have always been working with other directors to promote this. On the one hand I try to push the boundaries and on the other I always try to have this dialogue with the authorities because I think it's pointless and it doesn't make sense not to discuss this with them. They are two things that go together.
A Touch of Sin is in cinemas today