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Life imitating art

This movie was banned in China—but real life proved far grislier

On Mar. 1, a violent attack claimed 29 lives in Kunming station. Only a few hours later, a seemingly unrelated topic began trending on Sina Weibo: Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, a film about four random and brutal acts of violence, each echoing with an actual Chinese crime case of recent years.

The movie won best screenplay at last year’s Cannes Film Festival but has had a hard time getting the green light for a public screening in China, presumably for the raw violent scenes. Still, the terrorist attack is helping spur discussion around the film and its message.

Just a few hours before the attack, Jia had taken to Sina Weibo to complain about the film bureau’s rejection of its screening and that links to excerpts of the movie had been leaked. His message quickly spread and a growing audience claimed to have seen the film online and started to make the connection with the Kunming attack.

The title of Jia’s film Tian Zhu Ding can be literally translated as “determined by the fate,” hinting at a sense of desperation. Its director is known for delving into the impact of social and political stress on Chinese people, and this film illustrates how seemingly normal people’s lives could turn deadly.

Jia once said beneath every violent act, there is a declaration of survival: “I live like this and no one knows; I’ve been [in] these [difficulties in life] but no one hears me.” This thinking is reflected in the episodes of the movie, stories of common people turned killers—a miner, a quiet migrant worker with a family back in his home village, a female spa-worker, a man exposed to the sex-trade industry.

In an interview, Jia noted he felt an “incredibly big amount of pressure when I returned from Cannes with this film… Intensive violence events broke out almost everyday. This kind of continuity shocked me.”

The film was produced in early 2013, yet could not be shown to the public due to the scenes of violence—yet news of severe, real life crime popped-up on social media in real time. Even though it hasn’t been screened in China, netizens instantly saw a connection to the knife attacks. As @Zhangdun2013 commented on Sina Weibo: “the hatred shown in this film seems [a] match with reality. Yet our reality is stronger: having seen Kunming’s attack, the acts from the film don’t even count anymore.”

After the Kunming attack, some on Sina Weibo who made parallels between real life violence and the bloody scene shown in Jia’s film even speculated there may be a connection between the two. For instance, @Xueyu1983, writes on Weibo: “Go watch A Touch of Sin for it is China’s reality. Our rethinking on Kunming’s event mostly can be found in the movie…individual personality flaws, and criminal experience, motivation…problems of the country and the government that cause the issues…”

China’s film bureau is known for trying to keep only positive content in Chinese movies. Without adopting a film classification system, images of violence are frequently used as an excuse to reject public screening of some films. Facing the emerging discourse surrounding violent crimes in China, people are asking for a change. As @Dongqiangxixiang commented, “the violence and hatreds between people are not generated from art, nor from words or from film screens. We ask art to distance [itself] from violence, yet in this reality, we come into unavoidable confrontation with violence.”

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