Cannes 2013: The Rise of Chinese Cinema

A scattering of awards at the Cannes Film Festival has given international prominence to what experts say is an exciting era in Asian film-making, where China is emerging as the creative powerhouse. Directors from China, Japan, Singapore and Cambodia were all present at the Palais des Festivals, and this is where the world's most prestigious movie bash ended on Sunday, May 26th. Generous praise has been lavished upon China's Jia Zhangke for his screenwriting of "A Touch of Sin" (Tian Zhu Ding), which he also directed. This is a tale involving corruption, greed and the exploitation culture involved in modern day China. Festival jury boss Steven Spielberg said the movie was nothing less than "visionary," high praise indeed. Jia, 43, was born into real poverty. He was raised in the harsh province of Shanxi, which has frequently provided a grim setting for his story-lines. "A Touch of Sin," a collection of stories involving desperate people driven to desperate acts, is Jia's most controversial film to date, a real criticism of capitalist-communist China. It is a genuine stab at more commercial film-making, however, one should not confuse this ensemble drama with a conventional action movie. Rather significantly, Jia made this film with the blessing and backing of Shanghai Film Group, a government-sponsored production company, a partnership he would not have entertained in the past. This is a well scripted story about four loosely connected individuals whose lives are tainted by violence and death. Centrally, the concerns that have always interested Jia are still evident, namely, how ordinary Chinese citizens are adapting to the accelerated economic growth of their nation. Rather understandably, the characters struggle with this daunting proposition, and in A Touch of Sin, their fear is expressed through gunfire and knife crimes. Instead of mirroring the Crash style of multi-character drama in which the protagonists€™ stories eventually intersect, Jia opted to make four short films. Cleverly shot, the viewer can expect to see a character move from one story into the next sequence, the pattern repeating in an effortless fashion. But one thing does connect each character, and this connection comes in the form of misery. The incidents in this splendid movie are based on real life China, some of them have resonated loudly on a global scale. For instance, the suicide is a clear reference to the workers who took their own lives at the Foxconn plant. Not only did A Touch of Sin storm the Cannes film festival, the movie is opening in China in the fall, a real turning point in Chinese cinema. People are fully aware of the prevailing violence that has swept across China, the incidents in the movie simply highlight this fact. These incidents are delivered in such an emotionally gripping fashion, one including a reference to a 2011 crash of a high-speed train in which 40 people were killed. Yes, the recognition at Cannes is huge, but the official blessing for A Touch of Sin must be the unexpected openness by Chinese authorities. Seven years ago, when Ye Lou€™s erotic Summer Palace was shown at Cannes, the film was banned in China and the director was forbidden from movie-making for five years. A Touch of Sin, while missing the sexual prowess of Summer Palace, is a politically provocative offering, an unapologetic look at Chinese society. From the very beginning, the viewer is treated to cinematic glory. The opening scene introduces us to a man on a motorcycle being accosted by three males. The group are trying to rob him on a lonely mountain road, however, the motorcyclist reaches inside his jacket, produces a revolver, and kills them all. The tone is most definitely set. Not only does violence prevail, with gunshots and stabbing, so does directorial brilliance. Jia said this is a movie that attempts to understand the human instinct, how does an ordinary person act in an extraordinary situation? The result is one layered in sheer drama, an implied criticism of modern society. So many people face a personal crisis because of the uneven spread of wealth across China, vast disparities between the rich and the poor are evident to the outside world. The film focuses on the fact that resorting to violence can often be the most obvious method when a desperate person attempts to restore lost dignity. For China, the last thirty years have seen a gathering of new social problems, including inequality and corruption, and these issues have been swept away for far too long. At the press conference, Jia stated the fact that he did not have to take any artistic or political shortcuts when shooting the film. €œI am deeply attached to my freedom of creation, and always do my utmost to make sure I don€™t indulge in any self-censorship,€ he said. €œI just do my work as a director.€ His attitude is admirable, his bravery even more so.
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Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.