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Jia Zhangke: A Touch of Real Life

Jia Zhang Ke with his A Touch of Sin cast at the Cannes Film Festival  Photo:

Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯),received critical acclaim and the ‘best scripts最佳剧本’ honor for his latest work—A Touch of Sin (天注定) at the Cannes Film Festival, impressing the movie world once again and living up to his reputation of being the most talented young Chinese director among his peers.

The 1970-born director shot to fame as early as 1998 when his maiden work Pickpocket(小武)won an award at the Berlin Film Festival and the young Chinese director was even praised by critics as the “hope of Asian movies”. In 2006, his feature Still Life (三峡好人) bagged the best film honor at Venice Film Festival, which made him famous worldwide in a real sense.

Jia, being a Chinese director who has gained international recognition, however, is inclined to just consider himself as local director from the grassroots level.

And he’s got a good reason for being so modest. “I’m from a small town in western China’s Shanxi province. My upbringing taught me that the countryside is more representative of a true China and its society, while on the other side, big cities like Beijing and Shanghai are just ‘potted landscapes 盆景 of the big country’,” he was quoted as saying.

And as a humanist, he cares about people and the themes of all his works are based on stories about people. "I always have a strong desire to depict common people and their lives, so before A Touch of Sin, I mainly did documentary films," said Jia at a meeting with his fans at his Alma Mater—Beijing Film Academy.

During his youth, Jia witnessed the restless era of 1970s and 1980s when people around him were affected by the rapid changes in the society.  “When I was young, I had hoped to write about these changes. And then I found the power of images. They are more representative and could more easily connect to the audience.”

The talented film artist then decided to use flowing images for rendering the real China and its social vicissitudes.

“My hometown is a small village by the side of highway. In college days, I would get on a long-distance bus (长途汽车) from Beijing to travel first to my home, and then, after one night’s stay, I would carry on the trip toward west, finally reaching the north of Shaanxi province.”

According to the director, he likes travelling by bus because it’s the best way to observe people. “Although the views along the trip were more than familiar to me, people aboard the bus were different."

Such kind of long-distance buses are like ‘mobile galleries移动画廊’ for him. "Different kinds of people get on the bus—mothers with kids, soldiers, constructions workers, peasants..." He said the images of these passengers could always inspire his imagination about their life stories.

Jia likes to find beauty in common people’s lives.

 In 2007, while shooting for the 24 Cities (24城), a movie about the decline of state-owned economy, Jia developed a habit of recording things with camera.

“I took photos for a group of female workers by the side of assembly line. Their hairlines were wet with sweat. That moment is enticing to me, not only because women are pretty but also because they are working, and the act of working itself is a beauty.”

Except for people, Jia said he would sometimes be drawn to objects used by people or the space in which people lived. “Still objects or buildings could also tell stories about people and a past era. The warmth of people leaves marks on them. For those who have experienced them, they could reflect on it; and for those who haven’t, they could imagine while watching the old objects.”

When asked how he could be so sensitive to beauty hidden in everyday life, Jia suggested people should try to keep a part of themselves immersed in art. “They can learn to appreciate works by artists. In this noisy world, you need to slow down a bit and learn things from an artist’s perspective. And then you will get the beauty which is peace.”

About his new movie A Touch of Sin, he admitted it is quite different from his past works, and said the impetus behind the change came from Weibo (微博, the Chinese equivalent of twitter)—a kind of ‘We-Media (自媒体)’.

“In the past, I tended to focus on documentaries which would usually present the routine existence of common people, while this time, I try to depict people trapped in extreme situations, which is more theatrical.”

According to Jia, the four stories included in the movie are all real events that had created quite a buzz on Weibo in the past several years.

“Weibo has changed my life considerably. My colleague asked me to try it a few years ago and I did, and then my life was changed. Although in the past, we could also get news from newspapers, websites or TV stations, it was mostly censored. With the rise of We-Media, the most real and meanwhile theatrical events just pop in front of our eyes. They are filled with actions,” said the director.

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