Q1: Could you please briefly explain A Touch of Sin to the UK audience?
My latest film A Touch of Sin is a story about four people who use violence to cope with the violence that is inflicted on them. The first story takes place in Shanxi, a town in northern China that produces coal. In this case, the violence was induced by social problems in the area, such as the widening of the gap between the rich and poor, and the unfair distribution of wealth that is becoming more common in that area. The second story happens in Chongqing, a major city near the Yangtze River in the South West of China, which is the most densely populated part of the country. It is a city where a large number of young people have left in order to find jobs in the south of China.This story is based around a professional killer who comes from a village that is in decline. The idea was to show what happens when people go against their current mundane life and get lost on the wrong path. The third story takes place in the middle of China, in Hubei province. A woman is sexually assaulted and uses a knife to defend herself. The final story is about a suicide case in Dongguan city, in Guangdong province which is in the south of China. It sounds like a lot things going on at once, but I wanted to shoot these four stories and turn them into one big piece about violence. The focus is on the isolated and hopeless in society.
Q2: These four stories are based on real-life events. As there are many similar cases that have happened in China, why did you choose these specific ones?
It was a broad-based decision. The issue with these stories is that they were individual but also ubiquitous. I hesitated about whether to include just one of these cases, which would have meant the film would have had more time to tell that story. However, I saw that similar news was being reported again and again on Weibo (the Chinese Twitter), so they are definitely not just one-off cases. It’s a universal misfortune in our modern society. And as it’s a widespread tendency, I decided I should include more cases to present the whole issue rather than a single case study.
Q3: How do you choose the aesthetic of your scenes?
I always want to present a complete landscape of China. I like that kind of aesthetic style from the ancients. When they drew a landscape print they gave it the title: “MILLION MILES landscape”; when they drew a river they called it the “WHOLE Yangtze River” or “MILLION MILES Yangtze River”. It was an ambition for my film to learn from their panoramic point of view. This is also the reason I chose these four stories, so we could make it a journey from the north to the south of China. It also reflects my technique of making film. In the beginning I did not know what kind of technique and language to use for this film, but then I found that the story is very similar to the Wuxia (Chinese martial arts) genre, and especially similar to the films of director King Hu. It’s all about individuals who are repressed, pushed, chased so they have to run away and then fight against these radical social changes through violence. I feel disappointed about a few things: The destiny of modern people is not so different to that of the ancients. It’s the same. First I had this feeling, when you see the mountains and rivers in China, the mountain is the same as a thousand years ago, but people have changed. However, really the same tragedies occur time and again. It’s a very subtle feeling, so those particular scenes and visual backgrounds are very important to me.
Q4: Is there any the most represented scene for the film?
One location in the third story was so difficult to find that we called it “Flees at Night”. I wanted to make a surreal scene just like the part from the classic Chinese novel, Water Margin. I want to find the kind of place that looked like the fake scenery that the Shaw Brothers Studio used back in the 60s and 70s, but in a real location. It can’t look too antique either. We always asked – what is its connection with today? We did find a lot of places looking like the fake studio scenery, but none of them felt modern enough. By coincidence we found a mountain road next to the Shennongjia nature reserve. The road is a modern construction, but the cliff next to the road looks just like a painting. So that scene left a deep impression on me.
Q5: From The World to A Touch of Sin you have collaborated with Lim Giong as your music composer for 10 years. Why?
I like Lim’s music. It contains a kind of free and modern element. His music presents the kind of unrestricted freedom that is very close to the spirit of modern people. He also really understands working in film, so it’s very easy to communicate with him. I quite like his working method too. We will discuss which parts of the film he needs to compose for, and he will normally write a few words as a note. For example, when Wang BaoQiang was riding his bike in the first scene of A Touch of Sin. I described the scene and he wrote down “Chu-Jiang”*, which is a phrase from the Chinese Opera Chu-Jiang, Ru Xiang. When I saw his note I knew he understood the language of my film and how I wanted to present that particular scene like a Chinese opera, when the main character first appears on the stage.
* Chu-Jiang is the door in Chinese opera where characters enter the stage.
Q6: Have you seen the UK trailer?
Yes I did, but I don’t really get it. Because there are a lot of question marks and I don’t understand. What are they going on about?
Q7: Some people compare you with Quentin Tarantino, what do you think?
Of course there are a lot of people discussing this and I think it’s easy to understand as I know Tarantino also likes the films of the Shaw Brothers studio. The inspiration for a lot of his films is Japanese Samurai movies and the Shaw Brothers studio. We have a similar taste in films, so the connection between us comes from this mutual resource of films we love.
Q8: You have travelled to many countries since the film’s launch. What kind of reactions have you had from people?
I have been to many different countries since Cannes in May last year and exchanged thoughts with audiences. Generally speaking, I understand that the problem of violence is actually an international issue. Every country has this issue, regardless of culture, social or economic system, from China to Japan, USA, Canada, France, the UK and Russia. I remember one thing that had quite an impact on me. I went to Russia right after the Cannes Festival finished. There were many old people who came to have a chat with me after they saw A Touch of Sin. (Chinese old men?) No, Russian old men. They came to thank me for shooting a film about Russia. I didn’t understand what they meant, but then I realised the issues I pointed out in the film are happening in Russia too. Violence is a very important human issue. Everyone has the potential to use violence and there are many reasons this becomes a possibility.
Q9: So, your film easily connects with people from different countries and backgrounds?
Yes, I talk about it as humanity’s issue because it’s a side of human nature we all need to face. However, when we talk about any society, we think of it as unique. For example the society in the UK is unique; the society in China is unique; the society in Russia is unique, but actually the development process is the same. Each country encounters the same phases, the difference is in the timing. I had this kind of feeling more after shooting Xiao Wu. My first film Xiao Wu was in 1998 and I heard that a lot of the Taiwanese audience thought the film was very similar to 80s Taiwan, which is the era of the film The Boys from Fengkuei by director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Japanese people think the film is similar to their society in the 50s and 60s after the war. Also, the Cantonese think it’s similar to society in 70s Hong Kong. So I think the reason my films reach people is because, despite the differences in timing, the social processes are very similar.
Q10: What kind of impact do you hope A Touch of Sin will bring in the future?
From point of view of the story and topic, I hope we can understand these social problems and learn to face them. We can read the film as a moral or legal condemnation, but it’s also very important to deconstruct it artistically. This is why as artists we insist that we see things from an artistic angle, because it’s a way to comprehend human behaviour that cannot be supplanted by law or morality.
Q11: In the very last scene of the film a group of people stare at the screen. What does it mean?
It’s very simple. Everyone should think of this issue!!