Jia Zhangke is one of the most respected independent Chinese directors of our generation, who started out making underground films. It has only been since 2004 that he has been making films with official Government approval, but Jia continues to be ruthless in his depiction of alienation against the backdrop of social, cultural and political realities in China. His cinematic portrayal of his country is poignant and has, over the years, charted the various changes taking place in China.

We catch up with the esteemed filmmaker who was presented with the  ‘International Excellence in Cinema’ award at the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival with Star this year, where he will also be screening his 2013 film A Touch of Sin.

Jia Zhangke - Pandolin.com

Jia Zhangke

The Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival with Star is honouring your work with the ‘Excellence in Cinema’ award in the international category. What was your reaction on finding out?

I’m really thankful to the festival for this honour, and I’m very happy about the fact that Indian audiences have understood and appreciated my work. It is encouraging to have your work appreciated.

At the same time, I’d like to point out that India and China share a very similar socio-cultural situation.

Is there an Indian film that you have watched, that has stayed with you?

When I was very young, the movie Awaara had a great impact on me, and it lingers with me till date. Raj Kapoor is, of course, a fabulous actor and I always found it very interesting that the film talks about equality. China, also being an ancient society, has had its own share of problems in society, especially in terms of power hierarchies and nepotism, to a certain extent.

This film made me question that and made me feel that the common man also had the power to make his own destiny. There’s also respect towards the poor depicted in the film, which made me think. It’s almost like a silent film, where Raj Kapoor communicates with few words and some great dance moves. If you remember, the main character of my first film, Xiao Wu, was also a pickpocket.

Have you been to India before, and what are you looking forward to experiencing here?

This is the first time that I’m coming to India, and I’m very happy to be here. Throughout the day, I’ve been humming the ‘Awaara hoon’ song! I’ve seen 3 Idiots and PK before, which are very popular in China but Indian arthouse films get very little promotion outside of the country. That is what I’m really looking forward to watching here at the Mumbai Film Festival.

Besides that, I’d love to go to the Elephanta Caves, and also try some of the aromatic Indian curries that I’ve heard so much about.

Would you be keen on working on an collaborative production between India and China?

There are a lot of possibilities for India-China collaborations on films, and I feel like the communication between the countries is increasing with each passing day. I hope we have some realistic and meaningful films coming out of the two countries soon, and not something like ‘Journey To The West’ by Tsui Hark, an old Chinese classic drama.

What are your thoughts on governments dictating cultural spheres?

The Chinese government still regulates cultural spheres to a certain extent. Since the 1990’s, directors have wanted this kind of control to disappear, and we have been seeing this censorship diminishing over the years. There is more room for negotiation today than there was before.

Many of your themes deal with alienation. In A Touch of Sin, four individuals are driven to violence at the end. How did you look at individual freedom in the backdrop of a controlling government and how much did you draw from your own experiences?

The individuals did not have channels to express their frustrations, and there was no solution they could arrive at. The most they could do is express themselves, and they ultimately did so through violence, when they came to a breaking point. Violence was the only means of expressing what they went through.

A touch of sin

Still from A Touch of Sin

With the advent of digital filmmaking in the 1990’s, how would you say has the experience of a filmmaker evolved?

Everything was state-owned before the 1990’s, and it was very difficult for individual filmmakers to pave their way. After digital filmmaking entered the scenario, it changed a lot of things for the independent filmmaker. Shooting became much simpler, and it was also easier to collect content for film. By the end of the 1990’s, a lot of young Chinese directors started coming up, who were expressing themselves through their films.

Another major change we noticed was the shift from films based only in big cities and urban locations, to smaller towns and villages all over China. Since the introduction of digital filmmaking, everyone has acquired the power to be a filmmaker and tell unique stories in their own ways. It became a very common phenomenon, and changed the face of filmmaking in China. The biggest outcome of digital filmmaking has been the documentaries that have been shot since and have grown to become important representations of China and Chinese culture.

In February, you’d announced a martial arts project – when do you start shooting? Please also tell us about your recent experiments with Virtual Reality (VR) as well.

We are still discussing about the actors we want to cast for the film, and will go ahead with the film after finalising that. The other exciting project we’ve been working on involves experimenting with VR (virtual reality); it is a romantic feature film, a love story about youngsters set in China.

How will VR help the audience control their movie-watching experience in the future?

The entire world of VR involves the framework envisioned by the director, so his contribution obviously remains major. But at the same time, every viewer is now able to customise his experience as they have options that they can choose between various aspects of a film. The film is still in an initial stage, where we are experimenting and figuring out the intricacies of such a complex process. We want to create a unique experience for our viewers while staying true to the vision of the director. Like with any innovation in photography or film, there’s a lot of trial and error involved, and that’s what we’re working on right now.