Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin (2013) is showing December 9 – January 7, 2019 and Walter Salles' Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang (2014) is showing December 10 – January 8, 2019 in the United States as part of the series Behind the Viewfinder.
When Jia Zhangke was just a boy, his father took him to the top of the ancient wall surrounding their hometown of Fenyang, a small industrial backwater nestled in northern China. From those heights, Jia could see the entirety of the world available to so many young Chinese born in the shadow of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms: a cloistered one of poverty and toil. He could see his family’s home in Courtyard #5, the building with foot-thick concrete walls built as a prison but repurposed as apartments for laborers. He could see the two apple trees growing between the buildings, some of the sole surviving remnants of the verdant Shanxi plateau before the arrival of sooty, countryside-sickening coal mining. He could see the desiccated concrete skeletons of high-rises being torn down by the same workers who originally put them up, now smashing them to rubble for redevelopment. And in the distance, Jia and his father could see the road that snaked into the distance towards the rest of China and the world. For a long while the two sat and stared at the road until a single car finally sped by. In Walter Salles’ documentary Jia Zhang-ke, A Guy from Fenyang, Jia recalls how the apparition of the car brought tears to his father’s eyes. “A few years later,” he reminiscences, “I also felt this limitation. I also felt that, on the other side of the wall of the fortified town, there was immense space, an inspiring world that I probably would never know.”
Flash forward several decades and the guy from Fenyang has grown into one of the most essential filmmakers of the 21st century, a man equally admired by audiences and harried by Communist authorities. Following the prohibition of many of his early films, Jia’s work was forced into a twilight world of pirated DVD sales and Western festival screenings. But Jia has endured, and Salles’ documentary sees him return to the locations of his early films as he braces himself for the shooting of one of his greatest works, 2013’s A Touch of Sin, an anthology film examining the rise of violent crimes in modern China as a phenomenon caused and exacerbated by domestic corruption and international economic depredation.
Salles’ documentary is structured so that Jia revisits the locations of his films in roughly the same chronological order as they were made, beginning with a return to Fenyang where he shot his first feature Xiao Wu (1997), a film about a discontented pickpocket struggling to keep his head above poverty and the social turmoil accompanying the 1997 Hong Kong handover. As Jia reunites with family and old associates who’ve never left Fenyang, he explains that the film borrowed some loose autobiographical elements, particularly how many of his friends became thieves and how he felt trapped and isolated by life in such a nowhere community. Jia and Salles then visit the mining communities that served as backdrops for his first international triumph, Platform (2000). Whereas Xiao Wu followed an individual struggling against a changing community, Platform follows a group weathering a changing country over several decades, a shift that mimicked Jia’s gradual move towards films that explicitly examined China’s past, present, and future as a nascent global superpower and its place within the larger global community. This anxiety concerning globalization came to fruition in The World (2004), a film set in the real-life Beijing World Park, a kitschy amusement park that recreates world landmarks for Chinese tourists who can’t afford (or presumable don’t want) to travel outside China.
Through these re-visitations, we realize that the expanding themes and scope of his films mimic both the expansion of China in the 21st century and Jia’s own horizons as a critical cause célèbre. A Touch of Sin, then, sees Jia regarding a post-globalization China, a de facto suzerainty of Western capitalism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s prolonged fourth segment, loosely based on the Foxconn Suicides in the Apple factories in Shenzhen where workers killed themselves in response to abysmal pay, exploitative hours, and miserable living quarters. With his hopeless, disaffected disposition towards an uncaring world, the protagonist Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo) seems a mirror image to the eponymous pickpocket and director proxy in Xiao Wu. There’s even a parallel between the doomed protagonists’ romantic attractions towards prostitutes who provide them with the human connection they so desperately crave. (Tellingly, the first film sees Xiao Wu abandon the prostitute while the other sees the prostitute abandon Xiao Hui. This could be interpreted as a statement on the rise of female emancipation in modern China, but it could also be a signal of an increasing cynicism and despair in Jia’s philosophical worldview.)
Yet it’s the first segment of A Touch of Sin that truly returns to Jia’s roots. Set in a similarly economically depressed northern mining community like the one where he grew up, the segment rages against the casual corruption of the Communist ruling class and their systematic disenfranchisement of the workers. It follows Dahai (Jiang Wu), an imperious yet unstable coal miner who’s beaten for threatening to travel to Beijing to report how the local Communist officials sold their community’s public property and pocketed the profits. In a fury, the wounded Dahai goes on a killing spree with a shotgun.
Though tentatively based on a true story—as are the other three segments—it’s impossible to watch this first chapter without suspecting a certain level of wish-fulfillment on Jia’s part. But the truth probably lies in the segment being the natural culmination of the themes dominating his career. In the documentary, Jia explains: “Actually, we live in a time of confused values and national malaise. That’s the backdrop to A Touch of Sin.” But hasn’t it been the backdrop to all of his films? If anything, the malaise has only increased with the rise of social media and technology and the recentralization of government power under the emerging cult of personality surrounding President Xi Jinping. Was A Touch of Sin Jia’s breaking point, the moment where his shiftless protagonists burst into violence? It would certainly be in keeping with the films he made afterwards, particularly this year’s Ash is Purest White, a romantic crime melodrama that doubles as an elegy to a traditional China swallowed by rapid industrialization. Like A Touch of Sin, it also features spasms of explicitly graphic violence that seems out of place with his languid, introspective early work.
It’s this moment of transition between artistic passivity and action that Salles captures in A Guy from Fenyang; it’s a portrait of an artist realizing he’s come as far as he can go making the kind of movies he’s spent decades making. From here on, it’ll take something newer, something bloodier—and perhaps something more sinful.