At this year’s New York Film Festival, internationally renowned filmmaker Jia Zhangke showed his new film, A Touch of Sin, his first narrative feature since 24 City in 2008.

Jia Zhangke

While A Touch of Sin deals with many of the same themes as Jia’s other films (alienation, corruption, exploitation, people lost in the confusing capitalist evolution of modern China), it’s also a substantial departure, introducing genre elements to his work. While in his earlier films characters humiliated  by the shifting forces in their lives might turn inward or immerse themselves in performance or technology, in A Touch of Sin they lash out with bloody results. The style in which Jia presents this violence is also a departure. Its effect is largely cathartic but Jia complicates our response to this mayhem by introducing it in a naturalistic context.

The film focuses on four separate stories. Jiang Wu (Shower) plays Dahai, a man living in a mining town who is increasingly resentful of the corruption that has allowed the village chief and others to become wealthy at the expense of the workers. Wang Baoqiang (Lost in Thailand) is Zhou San, a drifter with a gun who briefly goes home to visit his family. Jia regular Zhao Tao (The World) plays Xiao Yu, who works as a receptionist at a massage parlor and pressures the wealthy man she’s seeing to leave his wife for her. Newcomer Luo Lanshan plays Xiao Hui, who leaves his factory job after he’s blamed for a co-worker’s injury and ends up working in a luxury hotel/brothel, where he falls for a performer, Lianrong (Li Meng).

A Touch of Sin ranks with the esteemed director’s most compelling works and could expose him to a broader audience. The film opens in New York on Friday, October 4, 2013, expanding to LA and other markets in subsequent weeks.

MovieMaker spoke with Jia (through a translator) during his visit to New York for the festival.

MovieMaker (MM): This is obviously your most violent film. Much of the violence is shocking and brutal, but it is also often presented in a very different style. For example, when Xiao Yu fights back after being assaulted by the client, the film suddenly switches from a naturalistic style to one of a wu xia film. Even her posture as she holds the knife is very stylized. Can you talk about how you approached the violence in the film?

Jia Zhangke (JZ): I can relate to most of the action in the film because I’ve had similar experiences, but I have never experienced that kind of extreme violence. I wouldn’t know how to present it realistically. I decided that in those moments when the violence erupts, I would present it in the style of the old wu xia films, in a very stylized way, as though suddenly these characters were becoming heroes in an old film. I like the way it connects the story to history.

MM: Do you think the genre aspect of the violence  gives the film a broader appeal?

JZ: I don’t condone violence, but I think that the way it is presented has a rebellious spirit to it. The characters become violent as a reaction to injustice. It does seem to be of interest to more people.

MM: Your past films are usually focused on a single location and are as much about that location as about the characters. Can you talk about why you decided to make this film four separate stories and shoot them each in a different part of the country?

JZ: I was thinking of the wu xia film and how they are frequently about the hero going on a journey. I was trying to figure out how I could present the characters in this realistic story going on a journey. I realized that people in contemporary China frequently travel long distances for work in an effort to improve their way of life. Life in China today has this migratory quality that fits in with the tradition of the wu xia films. I had the actors go and stay in the places where their stories took place to understand the specific place.

MM: As you’ve become more renowned as an international filmmaker, has it become easier to see your films in China? Are they more widely seen there now?

JZ: Yes, it is easier to see them. This film opens in November and already there are discussions about the film on Seibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) with people interested and discussing what the film could be about.

MM: This seems like your most pessimistic film in that all four of the main characters seem doomed. Is this a reflection of how you see things in China now?

JZ: I don’t see it as pessimistic. I see it as tragic. Even the character of Xiao Yu, who survives, has to live with the consequences of murdering someone. But all of these characters find a way to rebel against injustice and despair. But I don’t think of it as pessimistic. It’s a tragedy.

MM: There’s always an element of performance or spectacle in your films. In The World and the hotel scenes in this film, the audience gets to escape while the performers themselves are trapped. But I was struck by the way you ended the film: with a shot of the audience watching the Chinese opera. Are you trying to implicate the audience? What do you want them to take away from the film?

JZ: Yes, my films often do show the characters performing. In Pickpocket, they sing karaoke. Platform is about a theater group. These films were about the transition from the Cultural Revolution, where performing started to be seen as a form of self-expression. These characters are able to express their inner life through performance. In The World, the performances in the theme park have nothing to do with self-expression. They have nothing to do with the reality that the characters are living in.

For A Touch of Sin, I was looking at some of the Chinese operas and I was surprised to find parallels to what the characters were going through. For example, the opera that Xiao Yu watches in the last scene is about a woman who is falsely accused of murder. So I saw a connection to the character. I also wanted to use the opera performances to connect these contemporary characters and their stories to folklore and history.

MM: Can you talk about how you cast the film? The main characters are played by experienced actors, but you cast unknowns as the couple in the last story.

JZ: Jiang Wu is a very well-known actor and his brother is Jiang Wen. Wang Baoqiang was in Blind Shaft and many other films. They are all very well-known in China. This is the first time they have collaborated in a film. Tao Zhao has been in many of my films and last year she was in an Italian film, Io Sono Li, for which she won the Donatello Award. I thought I needed to cast more experienced actors because I was not dealing strictly with realism. I thought the experienced actors would be better able to play the transition into a less realistic form in the violent scenes. The reason we cast an unknown in the last role is simply that we were looking for a 19-year-old boy. We found Luo Lanshan at an acting school in Hunan.

To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.