Practice tai chi? Then you can handle China censors: Jia Zhangke

Practice tai chi? Then you can handle China censors: Jia Zhangke

Cannes (France) (AFP) - Dealing with Beijing's censors is much like practising tai chi martial arts, renowned Chinese director Jia Zhangke said as he revealed his latest movie project to be shot in his hometown... and Australia.

In an interview with AFP, Jia -- on the jury of this year's Cannes Film Festival -- spoke candidly about his difficult relationship with censors in a country where his last critically-acclaimed movie "A Touch of Sin" has yet to come out.

The filmmaker, who is under strict orders not to talk about the festival itself until the top Palme d'Or prize is announced Saturday, explained he kept in regular touch with authorities to give any future project of his a chance of coming out in China.

"It's not cooperation, it's a form of contact," he said.

"You know tai chi? Only when you come in contact with your opponent can he or she feel your strength," he added, referring to the martial art whose adepts often stand on street corners in China, making slow, controlled movements.

"No director can give up the right and opportunity to show their film in their country. I have to spend a lot of time and patience to keep talking with them."

- Jia travels to future -

Authorities in China maintain a tight grip on political speech and frequently block or delay the release of films deemed to touch on sensitive issues.

Despite his best efforts, Jia failed to convince them to screen "A Touch of Sin", a bold movie that portrays China in the throes of brutal change -- a damaged society where corrupt officials, petty criminals and greedy bosses from Hong Kong and Taiwan hold sway.

The script for the film -- in the running for Cannes' top Palme d'Or prize last year -- had initially been approved in Beijing, and Jia was hoping to bring the movie out in November.

But then censors got cold feet, and he is still waiting.

"We're still in discussions, but there is not much progress," he said.

Jia is hoping that his latest venture, a film called "Mountains May Depart" in English, will fare better.

The storyline for the movie plays out in Jia's native Shanxi province in northern China and in Australia -- a first for the director who has only ever shot films in his own country.

In 1999, a young mine worker and woman fall in love, but she eventually decides to marry the mine owner.

Fast-forward to the present day. The spurned lover, who had left town and has fallen gravely ill, decides to return to seek out the love-of-his-life.

She has since divorced, but her ex-husband has decided to emigrate to Australia with their eight-year-old son.

Fast-forward another few years to 2025. The son is now 19, living by the sea in Australia and speaking no Chinese -- just English. The only character he knows is "Tao", his mother's name which means waves.

- An 'emotional blow' -

Jia said his inspiration for part of the film came when he went to Australia last year to promote "A Touch of Sin" and came into contact with a huge Chinese community.

"In Australia, I met a lot of friends, some of them came from my hometown of Fenyang and spoke to me in the local dialect, but their children didn't understand, they just spoke English. That gave me a real emotional blow and gave me a lot to think about."

Chris Berry, a film professor at King's College London who knows Jia, said the director's new project "confirms his re-energised engagement with the issues of class and the consequences of capitalist development that have always been on his mind in one way or another."

If "Mountains May Depart" makes it to Chinese screens, it may be Jia's first-ever box-office success in a country where he says independent films are increasingly difficult to get to market -- partly due to authorities and partly because of the public's taste for blockbuster extravaganzas.

"When I first started shooting independent films, there was strong support from Chinese society, including from the media. Everyone wanted to discuss and comment on these films," Jia said.

"Now... the public doesn't know these films exist."

But China's art-house scene may be slowly breaking through, as director Diao Yinan -- another independent Chinese filmmaker -- recently experienced.

His gritty thriller "Black Coal, Thin Ice", an unvarnished portrayal of modern China, made it through the censors and is enjoying unprecedented domestic success -- the first art-house production to break the $16 million mark at the box office.