A November 9 release date for celebrated Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin has come and gone, with no indication that the controversial film will ever be screened in China. Over the weekend, Jia was also missing from the 50th Golden Horse Awards in Taipei – known as the Chinese Oscars – where A Touch of Sin was nominated for six awards. Though Jia claimed “personal reasons” for his absence, media outlets are pointing a finger at Beijing.
Jia posted a vague apology to fans on his Weibo blog and Joint Entertainment Inc., the Taiwanese distributor for his film, cited “schedule changes.” The director and his actress wife Zhao Tao – who has a starring role in the film – were also scheduled to give lectures in Taipei.
Jia, who The New Yorker called “one of the best and most important directors in the world,” is a regular on the international film festival circuit but largely unknown at home. His 2006 film Still Life won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and 2008’s 24 City was an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival. A Touch of Sin was also awarded best screenplay at this year’s Cannes, on top of winning the $100,000 grand prize for best feature narrative at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
Jia’s latest work, which was inspired by true events, explores the human cost of China’s rise through the eyes of four main characters: a miner, a migrant worker, a sauna hostess and a factory employee. Each is pushed to desperation, and ultimately violence, due to economic inequality and political corruption.
A trailer for the film references the 2009 murder of a local government official who slapped a salon worker with a fistful of cash after she turned down his sexual advances, the 2011 bullet train wreck that killed dozens of passengers, and the highly publicized Foxconn suicides. These touchy subjects are viewed as obvious targets for censorship.
“It has come as little surprise that Jia’s film has languished in limbo, perhaps because of a change of heart by the censors,” said The New York Times. “[He] insisted in August that the censors, when they read the initial script of the film, had asked for few changes and were more concerned about snatches of dialogue than the blood-soaked violence. They did recommend that the killings be toned down and the body count lowered, but Jia rebutted them in a written reply, and they relented.”
Perhaps ironically, A Touch of Sin was partially financed by state-run enterprises in Shanxi Province and Shanghai.
Further complicating the film’s status is a leaked order from China’s Central Propaganda Department, allegedly issued in October, which directs media outlets to block its coverage.
“Do not conduct interviews, report, or comment on Jia’s film,” states the order, which was obtained by the University of California’s China Digital Times – a watchdog site that focuses on stories that are either blocked or deleted by state censors.
Though Jia’s latest feature may have struck a negative chord with Beijing, critics around the world are singing its praises. It’s currently rated 90 percent fresh on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
“Epic and intimate, A Touch of Sin finally feels as big and complex, as contradictory and sad as, well, China,” wrote The Globe and Mail’s James Adams.
The trailer for A Touch of Sin (with English subtitles) can be seen below: