Cannes 2013. Consistency In a Filmmaker's World: Jia Zhangke's "A Touch of Sin"

A self described homage to King Hu and Chang Cheh reveals itself to be strongly rooted in the consistency and strength of Jia's film world.
Marie-Pierre Duhamel


Many comments will no doubt be made about a "new" trend in Jia Zhangke's cinema. As he himself puts it, Tian zhu ding is a "martial arts film for contemporary China," paying direct homage to director Hu Jinquan (King Hu, as went his name in the West) and nourished by the vision of martial arts films like those of Chang Cheh. 

The English title A Touch of Sin is a direct reference to Hu's English title for Xianü  (Lady Errant Knight) or Touch of Zen, a 1970 film, selected in Cannes in 1975.*

Murder and weapons have entered Jia's world. But beyond any consideration upon "new" or "renewal," Tian zhu ding appears so strongly rooted in a set of themes, characters and concerns that run through Jia's filmography that its most striking beauties may well be in the consistency and strength of his film world.


Top: Wang Hongwei as Xiao Wu 2 (Ren xiao yao), with sunglasses. 

Jia's world has its own geography. It (re)organized China into a personal map, where almost  everything starts and ends in the filmmaker's native province of Shanxi. It is the starting point and the ultimate "home." This is where Xiao Wu the pickpocket operated, where the itinerant performers of Zhantai (Platform, 2000) roamed, where the sad heroes of Ren xiao yao (Unknown Pleasures, 2002) burnt their lives out, where the migrant worker of San Xia hao ren (Still Life 2006) and Shijie (The World, 2004) came from.  This is where Tian zhu ding starts and finishes at the end of a tragic "tour." The cities of Fenyang or Datong, the countryside and the murderous privatized coal mines have long been a compass to Jia's filmic China.

Here Shanxi has two "alter ego" characters. One is called "Sanming," and the other is played by Wang Hongwei. Wang Hongwei was Xiao Wu, and Xiao Wu has a filmic biography that made him a small town crook again in Ren xiao yao. In Tian zhu ding, Wang/Wu dies under the blade of the film's lady knight, played by Zhao Tao. He did not make a big fortune, his money came from local corruption. The banknotes he slaps Zhao Tao's Xiaoyu with are somehow archaic: archaic money compared with the very modern money of the clients of the night club "Golden Age." We see the class differences among crooks and bullies.

Above: A woman, a dam and the city of Yichang: "Sanming" the miner at the Three Gorges (Still Life).

The other character mirroring Shanxi and Wang's Xiao Wu is "Sanming," the miner, the worker. Not a "favorite actor" and maybe hardly a regular "film character;" more a person and a figure of destiny.  Sanming's status never changes. Time has passed, from his place in Platform as the "about to work at the mine" cousin of Wang Hongwei's character, to his story as a Shanxi miner looking for his fiancée in Still Life. "Sanming" has not changed: In Tian zhu ding, he is the first person Dahai meets when entering the mine canteen, and  the one who sees him off when he goes "hunting." He is on the boat to Chongqing-Fengjie where we meet again the assassin San'er (actor Wang Baoqiang, who started with Blind Shaft, a film about miners, before becoming a huge TV star). An almost voiceless worker, whose low-key design is the representation of a "prolonged sorrow,"  "Sanming" is a figure of the people, the "lao bai xing ("old hundred surnames," old being here the adjective for a warm touch), workers or peasants, younger or older. Yet Jia's vision is neither a nostalgic nor a merely compassionate one: it is subtly lyrical. "Sanming" is the hero of a ballad than is sung from film to film, whose virtues are told in an undertone, far from the glossy vulgarity of official images and globalized show-business. In Tian zhu ding, "Sanming" has a younger avatar: Xiao Hui lives the fate of the new age of Chinese industrial boom. Textile and computer factories, huge dormitories, quickly built cities and malls are the coal mines of a globalized economy.

Above: Mongolia—Zhao Tao dances for the "Mongolian Wine" (Ren xiao yao), top, and above, Ulan Bator Night (The World).

Jia's geography has its bitterly ironical El Dorado. It is a place that is never seen, but mentioned and referred to in all his films: Mongolia, the province north of Shanxi.  "It snows over Mongolia and Shanxi" says the weather forecast Lianrong reads to Xiao Hui at the Golden Age. Mongolia as a mysterious promise of another life, the goal of a journey that will never be made, a dream place, even if a real one. An utopia never to be realized, a new home never to be found, or a "next world" for hungry ghosts.  In Tian zhu ding, the Mongolia of San'er's bandit is Burma, a place where guns are cheap. To each his El Dorado.

On Jia's map, the "capital city" is never seen. It has a name, though: "Zhongnanhai in Peking." This is where Dahai wants to send his petition. Zhongnanhai is the domain which serves as central headquarters to the government and the Communist Party Central Committee. Some call it "the other forbidden city." In Tian zhu ding, it is enough for Dahai to write the name. But the post office girl insists that "the address is incomplete." Another Mongolia, another illusion. 

Jia's geography has a central region: the provinces of Sichuan and the neighbor province of Hubei.  This is where Tian zhu ding's Sanming is going to spend the New Year's holiday. More specifically, in the city of Fengjie that was wiped out of the map by the Three Gorges Dam (Still Life).  San'er is headed to his home village halfway between Wuhan and Chongqing, while Zhao Tao/Xiaoyu's home city is Yichang. Thus, the triangle where the Three Gorges Dam is. The filmic "central region" is the huge controversial symbol of  a country's official politics of "modernization." An emblem, a key reality to tell the wiping out of the past, the uprooting of millions. Destruction disguised as construction: a leitmotiv.

Going South means heading toward the "modern world": a globalized universe where hopes and necessities are confronted with the updated forms of oppression, as dreams are challenged by the glossy illusions of globalized high life. In the South are the "special economic zones" in the province of Canton: the megalopolis of the Pearl River delta (one of the first to open to foreign investments) and Dongguan, where young worker Xiao Hui meets Lianrong, before injustice catches up with him and throws him into despair. In Jia's geography, the South is the place where linguistics complete the mapping. With extreme attention and precision, he makes every character (professional actor or not) speak the "right" language: whether through dialect or the use of accents. Language is the constant reminder that someone is "from somewhere," geographically and socially. In the never ending travels of the migrants, dialect is the fragile link with "home", the basis for some solidarity, the last trace of a personal identity.  The presence of national standard Chinese (continental putonghua and Taiwanese guoyu) is clearly here an occasion for a critical variation on "newspeaks": the communist vocabulary is a farce in the "leader's train wagon" sex play, television shouts the bombastic formulas of "harmonious" society, the welcoming sentences imposed by the night club manager are the archaic formulas of old times servility, and the businessmen's language is an anthology of readymade managerial slogans. There is a crisis in language. Dialects and accents are a territory where language is neither "communication" nor coercion but a fragile means of free expression and resistance.


 Above: Wu Song and the Tiger.

As much as the film begins and ends in Shanxi, opera is present at its beginning and at its end. Dahai's rage is placed under the sign of the tiger: the tiger tapestry that decorates his home at home later serves to wrap his gun. Meanwhile, in the village, a small opera troupe plays Forest of the Wild boar (Ye zhu lin). The plot of the opera is an episode of the 14th century classical novel Water Margin. A story of outlaws, of noble and strong characters who rebel against injustice and corruption of imperial officials. A set of stories so dear to the Chinese people and so important in Chinese popular culture that the main heroes became divinities in popular religion. As Dahai passes by in humiliation, the singer presents himself as Lin Chong, a military instructor who becomes an outlaw with the Mount Liang rebels/bandits after he is the victim of an injustice. Water Margin stories nourished countless ballads and operas, and it is often considered as the first long wuxia novel. It has then logically become a central source for wuxia films such as Chang Cheh's productions of the 70s, one of the directors Jia Zhangke mentions as a master of sincerity and straightforwardness in the direction of martal arts stories. In Chang Cheh's Water Margin films (Water Margin, Outlaw of the Forest, All Men Are Brothers, 1972-1975), the outlaw Wu Song is one of the main characters. And among Wu Song's exploits, the most famous is his slaying of a man-eating tiger… Yet while the outlaws of the classic novel became a successful army and gained pardon in the end, Dahai has no "Mount Liang" to go to, nor a company of co-rebels to join. Dahai is alone. A knight for our time: humiliation and rage end in murder and madness. A tragedy without chivalry, a rebellion without exploits. Pure despair.

Above: A Water Margin film classic: Li Han-hsiang's Wu Song (Tiger Killer), 1982.

Jia's reference to wuxia cinema is far from being a simple wink at the genre or a mere tribute to famous directors.  In Jia's world, popular culture (but not the urban "movida" nor the official "folk stuff") is the very expression of a centuries-long history of oppression, rebellion, heroism and sacrifice, transposed into ballads, proverbs, opera genres and oral literature, created and transmitted in countryside gatherings as in urban neighborhoods and underworld.  In Tian zhu ding, this repertoire plays the exact part it plays in real life: it provides expression, postures and moves to the victims of injustice to whom expression and action have been denied. A heroic posture for the humblest, a dignified image for those who do not count. It goes for Dahai and his "Water Margin" move, for Xiaoyu's wuxia killing gesture, and even for San'er's use of the gun in the opening sequence.

In Tian zhu ding, operas and ancient stories play a part that appears strikingly consistent with Jia's affection for and understanding of popular culture: songs, stories and classical characters have always been keys to his films' lyricism. From the "Monkey King" (the hero of another classic novel) in Ren xiao yao to the songs and traditional shows that the film characters hear and watch in Still Life or The World.


Above: The Monkey King (Ren xiao yao).

A tiger, a horse, a bull, a snake, a duck, a fish, a boar, a monkey… Tian zhu ding displays its own zodiac in subtle associations with popular religion and rituals. Two Catholic nuns next to a martyr horse in Dahai's story, magical snakes around Xiaoyu and buffalos watching over her desperate night flight, a duck promised to sacrifice in San'er story, a few fishes "liberated" by Lianrong to please Buddha… As in Ren xiao yao (the Taoist butterflies of Zhao Tao, and the Monkey King as a figure of freedom), or in The World (miniature temples from all over the world and exotic animals), a metaphysical angst haunts Jia's world. Gods and zodiac animals witness in indifference the desperate actions of humans, sometimes sending signs, obscure threats or opaque symbols. Less an aspiration to "real" religious practice than an inconsolable longing for a moral dimension and an appeal to fundamental values. A desire to find something beyond the borders of a world that so often looks like Hell. "Decided by Fate": this is what the original title Tian zhu ding means. But "destiny" is questioned, over and over, through the four stories: fate evidently refers to the dramatic impulse that moves tragedy. The pitiless authority that makes the characters of the operas be subjected to unfair powers and rebel against their evil sentences. 


Above: Zhao Tao and the butterflies (Ren xiao yao).

In Ren xiao yao, actress Zhao Tao was brutally scolded by her boyfriend-boss, in a very long take of absurd and exasperated violence. In Tian zhu ding, a similar long take shows Xiaoyu slapped by bully Wang Hongwei. In The World and Still Life, Zhao Tao was an ill-treated lover / wife looking for independence from unreliable and brutal men. In Haishang chuanqi ( I Wish I Knew, 2010), Zhao Tao was the melancholic wanderer in a city (Shanghai) full of bitter memories. In Tan zhu ding as well, Zhao Tao's expressive face and focused talent inspire the filmmaker's world figure of womanhood. 

A wanderer in cities, a melancholic image of an endless quest and of a hard to tell grief. An errant knight without a sword, a betrayed lover, a heroine for heart-breaking operas.

The second opera piece, at the end of Tian zhu ding, is dedicated to this figure as much as to Hu Jinquan's second film (opera film Yu Tangchun, 1964). The opera is Su San in Chains (Su San qi jie): the incredibly popular story of a courtesan falsely accused of murder, the powerless prey of a corrupted legal system, beaten and humiliated in injustice. The (real) historical Su San was born in Shanxi and had her sentence endorsed in the province capital Taiyuan. Her story is known to all in China since the 17th century. The last two shots of the film show Zhao Tao's Xiaoyu watching an ancient representation of her destiny, and the audience of the opera looking into camera. The audience is looking at the audience. This is what consistency is about in Jia's world: to lyrically recreate reality as a folk singer improvises a ballad, so that the untold stories come to light, and that everyone hopefully remembers them and sings along.


*The writer of these lines prays every available god to see Chinese films titles finally go free from these "video-only-release" titles that encourage only cultural laziness.


Jia ZhangkeCannesCannes 2013Festival Coverage
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