The Politics of China in the Films of Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke is one of the most important Chinese directors today. He won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival for Still Life, NPR critic John Powers called him “the most important filmmaker working in the world today,” and he took home the Best Screenplay award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. 

All of his films have something in common: they work as a biography of China. The director himself said, “Ever since I began directing, I have tried in my films to follow the changes in Chinese society.” Throughout his career, Jia has critiqued China’s post-Cultural Revolution choices as having contributed to declining cultural traditions and to the suffering of marginal people. 

As everyone knows, Mao Zedong led a now infamous communist revolution in China. When Mao’s vision was threatened, he started a movement known as the Cultural Revolution. It lasted from 1966-1976, just six years after Jia was born. The movement failed, and it brought famine, bloodshed, and societal collapse. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, China has experienced rapid economic growth. The global socialist market became more friendly to capitalism overtime. China has doubled its GDP almost every eight years. And, according to the World Bank, it’s “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” As a result, much of the Chinese situation has been characterized positively, according to arts professor (and Barack Obama’s brother-in-law) Konrad Ng.

Jia’s movies tell a different story.

This screenshot from A Touch of Sin (2013) demonstrates his alternative focus well. This statue of Mao is just in the periphery and this is as close as the camera gets to the statue.

Since Jia isn’t concerned with the country’s communist past, he focuses on China’s post-communist fate. In particular, he thinks that China deliberately chose capitalism, which contributes to China’s decadence. One of his most recent films, Mountains May Depart (2015), best exemplifies this choice. 

Mountains follows Tao, played by Jia’s wife Zhao Tao, and those close to her in three different time periods: 1999, 2014, and 2025. The time of the first chapter is important to note. According to Declan McGrath, 1999 was when mobile phones, internet, and private cars were introduced to China. In this sense, it’s a milestone in the start of China’s rapid growth. It’s when China began to make significant choices, by opening up to a more global environment, that reshaped the country. 

It’s also in this period that Tao’s love triangle begins. One of Tao’s options, Zhang (Zhang Li), is a wealthy and ambitious businessperson; the other option, Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong), is a traditional, working class coal miner. This mirrors China after the end of the Cultural Revolution.  And like China, Tao, by marrying Zhang, chooses capitalism. Just in case there was a chance of missing this, they name their kid “Dollar.” 

While Mountains gives a clear metaphor of the choice, this theme reappears throughout his filmography. In Platform (2001), the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group, the main characters’ entertainment group, has to make choices about what kind of entertainment they do. In the beginning of the 1980s, they perform Maoist propaganda. By the end, they sing Western covers. 

As represented here, Jia characterizes the effects of China’s rise as decadent. But what makes it decadent? The success of China, for Jia, has brought with it a decline of culture and the suffering of marginal people.

Many of his movies take place over a long period of time, which is helpful because we can trace China’s changes through the changes of the characters. In Mountains May Depart, Tao eventually gets divorced and loses custody of Dollar. When Tao’s father dies, Dollar, who has been living with his father in a large city, returns for the funeral. When Dollar comes back, he doesn’t kneel when told to. It becomes apparent that he doesn’t understand the traditional Chinese funeral rituals—the child named after money, representing China’s economic growth, can no longer follow a basic cultural tradition.

His forgetting of culture continues in the chapter set in 2025 in Australia. Dollar, now a college student, doesn’t know Chinese and has to study it in school like an ancient language. In order to communicate with his father, he has to use a translator. He has almost completely lost touch with his Chinese self. 

His 2006 movie Still Life is based on the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, now the world’s largest power plant. In order for the dam to be built, the 2,000 year old city of Fengjie has to be flooded. The dam itself is a symbol that contrasts with the story of China’s success. According to the New York Times, the Chinese government displaced and evicted millions to create Three Gorges. While the city is being destroyed for the flooding, Jia depicts two stories. 

Familial drama being paired with the destruction of Fengjie.

In the first story, Sanming (Han Sanming) is looking for his ex-wife and child, whom he hasn’t seen in 16 years. In the second, Shen Hong (again, Zhao Tao) is looking for her husband who ran off two years ago. Both characters are looking for familial reconciliation. But neither story ends happily. Han never gets to see his daughter and Shen wants a divorce. As Ng puts it, “they both remain individuals in search of a sense of family that no longer exists.” This destruction of the traditional family is paired with iconography of the city being destroyed.

In one of the most memorable cases, a building of the old city, in more traditionally styled architecture, is frequently paired with images of Shen. When the building is paired with her, she is often deliberating on the future of her relationship. Just before this screenshot, you can see her being framed with the building. When she leaves, the building takes off like a rocket ship. She has come to terms with the end of her marriage; and at the same time, old China has disappeared. 

But the destruction of the culture and the family isn’t the only negative effect of China’s success. Jia’s films also show that this success has come at the plight of the most marginalized Chinese. As the title infers, this suffering is rather blatant in A Touch of Sin.

A Touch of Sin, like many of his other movies, is a sort of loose anthology. The movie uses speculative fiction to depict four acts of violence that took place in China. In the first, a mine worker (Dahai, played by Jiang Wu) grows frustrated with the corrupt village chief and the owner of the mine. Both of whom profited from exploiting the formerly public owned coal mine where he works. They made promises of increased pay and benefits; after all, they were selling public property. 

Dahai tries to get coworkers to join him in fighting for wages and to rebel. But, they all seem content. In one scene, Dahai gets on a bus of coworkers eager to greet their boss who just landed on his new private plane. In this respect, Dahai is the only mine worker aware of his social class. The rest have been misguided to the point of contentment. To use Marxist terminology, only Dahai is not persuaded by false consciousness.

After confronting the owner, Dahai is beaten with golf clubs by the henchmen. When he returns to village life all bandaged up, his coworkers call him “Mr. Golf.” Again, an example of false consciousness. It’s also the final straw: Dahai picks up a shotgun and seeks class vengeance. 

The privatization of the public mine made the village chief and the owner incredibly rich, while the common workers saw no benefits. Moreover, the workers or the proletariat were plotted against each other because of false consciousness. To summarize, in this first act, China’s social changes fostered the environment for violence. 

In some way or another, all four cases show ways the institutions of China have paved the way for violence.

The last of the four acts is the most famous. It’s a fictional account of one of the Foxconn suicides, where a series of 14 suicides took place at the Foxconn City industrial park in Shenzhen. Jia connects the suicides with low pay, and horrible living and working conditions.

The main character of the fourth story, Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), goes from job to job as he tries to pay his bills. Like many of Jia’s characters Xiao speaks with a heavy regional accent associated with the poor and rural Chinese, according to Mubi critic Marie-Pierre Duhamel. Xiao eventually gets a job as a waiter at a nightclub where the rich often spend their time. In one scene he is shown with a prostitute who works there. She is eating an apple and playing on an IPad. 

Jiwei Xiao has pointed out that in each violent episode, the characters all eat apples, which may be linked to “original sin.” An interpretation invited by the movie’s title. But in this act, the apple is linked with an IPad, and thus to Apple, the corporation. Jiwei Xiao writes, “The allegorical meaning is tied to ‘Apple,’ the prime brand and icon that represents the triumph of global capitalism. Having bitten into its own ‘apple’ of capitalism, China is now experiencing euphoria as well as the painful spasms of its new twenty-first century.” This directly connects the suicide to capialism: Apple was one of Foxxconn’s largest customers. Therefore, in A Touch of Sin, as well as other Jia films, the economic success of capitalism in China has contributed to the suffering of the poor and often rural workers.

The filmography of Jia Zhangke presents China’s rapid economic success as contributing to its own decadence. This comes in terms of the destruction of traditional Chinese culture and the suffering of marginalized Chinese people, like Dahai and Xiao. Importantly, this is a counter narrative in Chinese cinema. Jia’s first three films were banned because they were made outside censorship. And while A Touch of Sin has legally passed Chinese censors, it still hasn’t been shown because the government was worried about political unrest. 

Perhaps the conclusion to “A Touch of Sin” best shows this. One of these soldiers of violence is watching a play, where an actor repeatedly shouts “Do you understand your sins?” Then, the camera pivots to the entire crowd watching. It’s here where Jia directly asks China if they understand their sins. In this way, he is calling for repentance. 

The powerful final shot of A Touch of Sin.

This essay is adopted from a speech I gave for Comm 399 at Calvin University in the Spring of 2020.

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