Last month, the China Film Directors’ Guild Awards caused a stir at their annual ceremony, when the jury – made up solely of filmmakers – refused to name a winner in both the Best Picture and Best Director categories. Announced live on national television by guild chairman Feng Xiaogang, the Aftershock director often dubbed “China’s Spielberg”, the guild declared that the artistic quality of the competing films was too low to be honoured. It has been widely speculated that the decision was made in protest, after Jia Zhangke’s controversial thriller A Touch of Sin was withdrawn from contention at the last minute, after failing to pass censorship.
It has been almost exactly a year since Jia’s film, which tells four stories based on true high-profile incidents of corruption, murder and economic disparity, debuted at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Screenplay. At the time, Jia was confident that the film would become the first of his works to receive a wide theatrical release in his home country, but to-date that has yet to happen. Furthermore, China’s Central Propaganda Department has ordered the local media not to publish any features, interviews or reviews relating to the film. This month sees A Touch of Sin hit screens across the UK, but that too is likely to go unnoticed in its country of origin.
Jia Zhangke has always been considered an outsider in China’s now-huge domestic film industry, shooting his first films, including Pickpocket (1997) and Unknown Pleasures (2002) on video without official approval. Even after Jia turned legit in 2004, making The World within the authorised system, he has yet to secure a domestic release for any of his documentary or narrative features. So far, that looks unlikely to change, as A Touch of Sin proves to be Jia’s most provocative and flagrantly critical film yet.
Central among the reasons why A Touch of Sin has upset China’s censorship board, the catchily-monikered State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television – or SAPPRFT – is because each of the film’s four stories, detailing endemic corruption, escalating violence, and an ever-expanding income gap, is based on a true incident. Each event from China’s recent past provoked outrage among the country’s increasingly powerful netizens, leading to widespread criticism and condemnation of the government.
One example is reenacted onscreen by Jia’s wife and long-time muse, Zhao Tao, who plays Xiaoyu, a recently-spurned mistress who works as a receptionist at a sauna. Mistaken for a masseuse, who also offer sexual services to their clients, Xiaoyu rebuffs the advances of a drunken, arrogant government official. Becoming increasingly aggressive, the man pulls a thick wad of cash from his pocket and proceeds to slap Xiaoyu repeatedly across the face, while taunting her about his wealth and intentions to force himself upon her, perhaps even worse. Xiaoyu’s efforts to defend herself quickly turn bloody and the situation escalates into murderous mayhem.
Xiaoyu is based on 21-year-old pedicurist Deng Yujiao, who was charged with murder in May 2009 after stabbing a local official to death following a similar assault. Her arrest sparked outrage across the country and provoked numerous protests online and on the streets. Cited as another example of high-level corruption and immorality, mounting pressure eventually saw prosecutors retract the charges, grant Deng bail, and even commute her eventual sentence to time served, due to diminished responsibility. The police’s handling of the case was also called into question.
Each one of the incidents in A Touch of Sin, from Jiang Wu’s gun-toting outburst against his corrupt town leaders, to Wang Baoqiang’s listless wandering gunman, the high-speed train crash and the suicide of a Foxconn-style factory worker, resonates as poignantly with the Chinese public. The film’s numerous award wins over the past 12 months have almost guaranteed that if released domestically, A Touch of Sin would be widely seen, so it’s little wonder SAPPRFT is more inclined to keeping this closet-full of skeletons off cinema screens, rather than celebrate the international success of one of its filmmakers.
While Jia continues to wait for his cinematic homecoming, this level of censorship in Chinese cinema is far from an isolated case. Another film that suffered a similar fate was Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land, which was denied a domestic release for almost four years, despite the director’s numerous attempts to re-edit it at SAPPRFT’s behest. Ning had scored back-to-back commercial hits with comedy thrillers Crazy Stone (2006) and Crazy Racer (2009), Guy Ritchie-esque multi-stranded crime capers spotlighting the talents of actor Huang Bo, who has since become one of the country’s most successful screen comedians.
Produced off the back of these successes and completed in 2010, No Man’s Land stars fellow comedian Xu Zheng opposite Huang, as a small-town lawyer who journeys into the remote deserts of Xinjiang Province in the North West of the country, where he encounters a motley assortment of poachers, gangsters, prostitutes and other ne’er-do-wells. Ning’s darkly comic portrayal of a region rife with crime and corruption saw the film immediately denied a release. Multiple versions of the film were submitted, but all were refused. Eventually Ning shelved the project and produced the far less interesting or provocative Guns And Roses in 2012.
No Man’s Land was eventually granted a theatrical release last December, and while it is unclear exactly how much this approved version now differs from Ning Hao’s first cut of the film, it remains a fiercely nihilistic and frequently very funny depiction of modern day China. Four years of anticipation, coupled with the winning onscreen partnership of Xu Zheng and Huang Bo (who recently appeared together in The Hangover-ish box office smash Lost in Thailand), ensured that No Man’s Land opened huge, eventually taking more than RMB250 million (£24 million) at the box office – a figure normally limited to holiday blockbusters.
For many years it seemed China was only interested in producing large-scale period epics celebrating the exploits of their finest emperors and generals, until local audiences began to stay away. In recent years, the people of the People’s Republic have been making it increasingly clear that their cinematic hunger for Hollywood blockbusters can extend to domestic product, provided they are given what they want. Despite the censors clamping down on films from provocative directors like Jia Zhangke and Ning Hao, they have generally loosened up and allowed more contemporary stories to be told. Unsurprisingly, this has lead to an influx of star-studded romantic comedies celebrating the glamorous consumerism of the emerging, cash-flush middle class. But if they play by the rules, there is a place for genre cinema too, and crime films specifically.
The best recent example of this is Johnnie To’s Drug War. The reigning godfather of Hong Kong Cinema, To has enjoyed a rich and diverse career spanning more than 30 years, tasting success with comedies, romances, dramas – but above all – his super-stylised tales of career criminals and those sworn to taking them down. In 2012, To directed his first thriller to be set on the mainland in decades, a down and dirty affair that exposed the intricacies of cross-border drug smuggling operations. Pairing Hong Kong heartthrob Louis Koo’s compromised dealer with mainland star Sun Honglei’s indefatigable vice cop in an intricate undercover operation, To found the perfect sweet spot. By cooperating with SAPPRFT every step of the way, To managed to keep Drug War in bounds, while still being an edgy expose of China’s criminal underworld.
Even more interesting is Gao Qunshu’s award-winning indie drama Beijing Blues from earlier the same year. Using non-professional actors to portraying a small crimes unit operating in the nation’s capital, the film proves a fascinating document of a community rife with con artists, pickpockets and petty criminals, who prey on the growing legions of nouveau riche however they can. Beijing Blues won both the Best Director prize at Shanghai and the Best Film award at Taipei’s Golden Horse awards that year, and remains the best cinematic depiction of the country’s changing attitudes towards wealth, survival and greed.
2014 is already looking bright for the future of Chinese Crime Cinema, and this emerging sub-genre of gritty, realistic, socially aware dramas and thrillers critical of a country divided into the haves and the have-nots. In February, Diao Yinan’s snow-cloaked murder mystery Black Coal, Thin Ice was awarded both the Golden Bear for Best Film and the Best Actor Silver Bear for Liao Fan at Berlin.
The immediately provocative narrative follows a traumatised, alcoholic cop who becomes obsessed with the widow of a murder victim (played by Taiwanese beauty Gwei Lun Mei), whose body was found hacked to pieces and scattered in coal mines across the country. As he searches for the killer, a bizarre relationship evolves between them, while the world they inhabit is shown as nothing but bleak, cold and uncaring. Off the back of its award-winning visit to Germany, Black Coal, Thin Ice has had a surprisingly strong opening in China, rocketing past the RMB100 million (£9.5 million) mark in its first two weeks on release, wholly unexpected for a low budget art film with no real star power attached.
No doubt the current success of Diao Yinan’s film is a final sting in the tail for Jia, who had imagined a similar reception for A Touch of Sin after his victory at Cannes last year. Perhaps he can take some solace in knowing that most industrious Chinese film lovers will already have sought out his film via download or pirate DVD by now anyway, but it’s small recompense compared with the way his work has been treated by the Chinese authorities.
While overseas audiences should certainly make the most of the opportunity to experience films like A Touch of Sin, No Man’s Land and Black Coal, Thin Ice when they get the chance, it is more encouraging to see that China’s own movie-going public is nurturing a hunger for something beyond mainstream fodder, for films that dare to confront their government and question wrongdoings when they see them. While not every film makes it through SAPPRFT’s impenetrable net of inconsistent censorship, the demand is clearly growing, and the filmmakers are only too willing to oblige.
A version of this article first appeared in Vérité Film Magazine May 2014