A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding, China-Japan-France, 2013)

The genre film

The genre film

I’m a fan of Jia Zhangke’s work (see Still Life and Xiao Wu posts) and his latest is no disappointment. The title references the classic  A Touch of Zen (Xia nü, Taiwan, 1971), a wuxia that was successful at Cannes, and suggests that Jia is working in genre rather than the social realism of his previous features. The latter label doesn’t quite do justice to Still Life as its setting, a town about to be submerged for the Three Gorges Dam, is semi-surreal and includes a shot of a building blasting off into space. However, the purpose of Jia’s work is no doubt to highlight the plight of ordinary folk left behind by the vast expansion of China’s economy.

A Touch of Sin tells four stories, based on ‘true life’ as told through Weibo (China’s Twitter), of ordinary folk being pushed to their limit and each, while telling of sin, ends in violence. Thus we get a fascinating mix of Jia’s, as usual, brilliantly fluid steadicam direction, that waltzes us through the ridiculously rundown places to the sublime modernity of, for example, a massive bridge, and genre violence. The third (of four) story, featuring Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao (below), who also appeared in Still Life, steps into the wuxia of Zen in its bloody climax.

The social realist film

The social realist film

I enjoyed the audacity of mixing two discourses (genre and social realism) and it worked to emphasise the way in which China’s headlong rush into modernity has left many people behind so their only recourse is to violence. Apparently President Xi is a fan of Jia’s work which is why the film has been distributed in China; a surprising eventuality given how critical it is of the state, albeit indirectly – see Tony Rayn’s excellent piece.

Ju Dou (China-Japan, 1990)



Spoiler alert!

Ju Dou is an exemplary melodrama that uses its setting, a small-scale dye-works, and filters, to create an ‘excessive’ colour scheme that’s perfect for the overwrought narrative of sexual betrayal. Jinshan, the brutal owner of the works, buys a third wife, Ju Dou (Gong Li), after beating two previous ones to death in anger over ‘their’ inability to produce a male heir; it is he, in fact, that is impotent. His adopted nephew, Tianqing (Li Baotian), is sympathetic to her plight and she seduces him and produces a boy that Jinshan thinks is his. The child, Tianbai, grows up to be monstrous and kills both his ‘fathers’; one accidentally.

Zhang Yimou’s direction, partly no doubt due to Chinese censorship (it was still banned for two years), shoots the sex indirectly: the first time Ju Dou and Tianqing copulate an enormous cloth, dyed deep red, unravels from its position into what looks like a bloody mess on the floor.  Ju Dou had claimed to be ‘pure’ just before so, presumably, Jinshan is a bit confused when he thinks the child is his.

Obviously there are specifically Chinese elements in the melodrama such as the funeral ritual for Jinshan where Ju Dou and Tianqing have to try and prevent the coffin reaching the burial grounds 49 times. Propriety demands that the two be separated afterwards and so over the following years they can only see each other in secret. ‘Propriety’ doesn’t quite explain the situation as Confucian tradition would demand their death if they were found out. In western melodrama ostracism is often the highest price paid for breaking social mores, as in All That Heaven Allows (US, 1955).

Confucian values are highly patriarchal and the film is a critique on their continued prevalence in modern China. At the end the film steps into gothic horror as the boy Tianbai has committed the ultimate sin under Confucianism in committing patricide (twice in fact) and Ju Dou burns down the dye-works. The film ends with a freeze frame of her engulfed in flames.

Unfortunately the only copy I could get hold of, a DVD via Lovefilm, reminded me of watching much-used 16mm films at university. It was heavily scratched in places and although the colour isn’t too bad, I’m sure that the palette could have been better. It’s strange that one of the mosts feted of Chinese directors, Zhang was responsible for the Beijing Olympic ceremony, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, should not have a decent DVD available in this country.

Red Cliff (Chi bi, China, 2008)

‘This is really really important’

Since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan-Hong Kong-US-China, 2000) we’ve been, in the west, regaled with a number of spectacular films from China. John Woo, who’s gone ‘full circle’ from Hong Kong to Hollywood and back to China, directs this conflagration of a film.

It lacks nothing for spectacle but maybe I’m getting jaded at seeing yet another shedload of extras being mown down by heroic men. It was Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro who kept me watching; I doubt there’s a pair of more charismatic actors operating anywhere in the world. Lueng, in particular, is terrific whether he’s playing one of Wong Kar Wai’s alter egos or in the cut and thrust of wuxia. That said, I’m also getting bored of frowning men who have to go off to fight for justice; Russell Crowe’s wearing this frown on posters for the forthcoming Robin Hood.

Women aren’t neglected in Red Cliff but they are so secondary. A bleat of a complaint really, as I’m sure that’s historically accurate; I should be watching other genres.

House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu, China, 2004)

Lover’s whisper

One of the most sumptuously shot films in cinema, House of Flying Daggers wears its heart on the screen mixing outrageous action sequences with high octane romance. I saw the film when it was released and thoroughly enjoyed the cinematography and action sequences though failed to appreciate the romance. I certainly noticed the romantic narrative however they are rather de rigeur in action cinema. On this third viewing it moved into the foreground and I could appreciate more the terrific performances from Kaneshiro Takeshi and Zhang Ziyi. The love triangle is convincingly portrayed and the pain of the ‘cuckolded’ Leo (Andy Lau) is touchingly portrayed.

As is Jin’s (Kaneshiro) transition from ‘playboy’ to being genuinely smitten. At first Mei (Zhang) resists his advances but later, when she is keen, it’s his turn to demure; probably for the first time in his life. He’s experiencing conflicting emotions as he matures into someone who genuinely cares for a woman.

Similarly, Mei’s rejection of Leo is shown to be physical: she still loves him but Jin has taken priority in her affections. She tries to make love to Leo but her body refuses. Thus in love it is hard to know our own feelings as we can never be sure what the body might do (which is probably expressing our subconscious).

Daggers is a thrilling film, stunning action and offers a subtle presentation of the vicissitudes of love.

Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao, S.Korea-Japan-France-China, 2002)

"There's no fuckin' future"

“There’s no fuckin’ future”

Unknown Pleasures is the final part of Jia Zhangke’s ‘Hometown trilogy’ (after Xiao Wu and Platform) and it’s probably the grimmest of the three. If the eponymous character of Xiao Wu is one person being left behind by economic development in China, the teenage protagonists of Unknown Pleasures represent a whole (post-Mao) generation whose lives are being destroyed by wholesale changes in society.

The title, as in Platform, is a reference to a pop song (and, also, tangentially, to Joy Division) and western, and westernised, popular culture infuses the film from the ‘bob’ wig worn by would-be singer Qiao Qiao to the attempted bank robbery – both inspired by Pulp Fiction (1994). Qiao, though, is in the hands of local gangster and her performances are purely commercial; adverts for King Mongolian beer. It’s the logical progression from Platform, where the theatrical troupe start as state-run and end up as a business. In Unknown Pleasures selling is all that matters.

Jia portrays capitalism as soulless; or rather, it eats away at our souls as all we want is money. In China, of course, everything is magnified because of its size, so there are a lot of soulless people ‘growing’ in China. Jia focuses on the losers, but no doubt the winners will also be spiritually empty.

Platform (Zhantai, Hong Kong-China-Japan-France, 2000)

Looking to the future

Looking to the future

Whilst Xiao Wu focused on one individual experiencing the transition to capitalism in China, Platform follows a theatrical troupe during the 1980s, a period of vast change as Deng Xiaoping instituted economic changes. Jia Zhangke’s second feature is stylistically very different from the handheld realism of Xiao Wu; often the motionless camera observes the action in long takes. Micheal Berry, in his excellent BFI Film Classic book on the ‘Hometown trilogy’, compares the style to Ozu; I was reminded of Miklos Jansco where action often wonders offscreen.

Despite the stylisation the film still feels realist; location shooting and non-professional actors and the ordinary lives of the protagonists suggest we’re seeing an authentic vision of a Chinese backwater. Berry mentions that the DVD cut is an hour shorter than the original, it is Jia’s preferred version, and a lot of explicatory material has been excised. That might be one of the reasons I was occasionally confused as to what was going on. Similarly, I didn’t pick up on all the cultural references; however, that’s part of the point of watching ‘world’ cinema: to learn.

Although there are realist aspects, the film also has almost-surreal moments. For example when Zhong Ping goes to a meeting with a new perm, a signifier of modernity, she’s the butt of jokes; ‘you look like a flamenco dancer’. Cut to the same setting, a run down hall, with Zhong dancing in a resplendent red flamenco dress. Similarly, another scene is interrupted by a ‘one child parade’; however that wasn’t contrived but were an occurence during the late ’70s.

Jia also swamps the mise en scene in blue (all trucks in China seem to be blue!), red and green also predominate. This stylisation aesthetises the film suggesting the film is more than reflecting people’s lives but a statement about ’80s China.

Xiao Wu (China-Hong Kong, 1997)

Life is passing by

Life is passing by

Director Jia Zhangke dropped beneath my radar, for some reason, until I saw Still Life (2006); that presented me with the enticing prospect of ‘catching up’ on some terrific films. It’s obvious to go chronologically so, surprisingly, I am; Xiao Wu was his first feature. Heavily influenced by Italian neo realists, and Bresson’s Pickpocket (France, 1959), Xiao Wu features location shooting and non actors in a tale of a pickpocket (also an alternative title for the film) who finds life in ‘new’ China is passing him by.

The film’s shot in Fenyang, a ‘middle of nowhere’ place, and one of the fascinating aspects of the film is this rundown setting and the people (who are real) in it. ‘Middle of nowhere’ in the middle of China is a long way away from most places but children play skipping in alleys, just as the do everywhere else in the world.

Although not as surreal as Still Life, the naturalism of the visual style – much of it handheld camera – doesn’t mean the mise en scene isn’t expressive. Greens and  reds are prominent sometimes submerging scenes in colour expressionately reflecting the protagonist’s stagnation. Whilst his boyhood companions make something of their lives, though their ‘success’ is not something that Jia is necessarily celebrating, Xiao Wu drifts through petty theft unable to connect with women or his family: something common in all nations.

The film was initially banned in China and celebrated in the West; we like celebrating what others ban as it shows off our tolerance. Clearly the censors noticed the lack of celebration of China’s growing economic prosperity. As in Still Life we see characters who are living lives in transition, looking for roots where they no longer exist.