Practice taiji? Then you can handle China censors: Jia Zhangke

CANNES, France (Agence France-Presse) - Dealing with Beijing's censors is much like practising taiji, acclaimed 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, who is 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.

Speaking late on Monday, Jia said he kept in regular touch with the 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 taiji? 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."

The 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 always shot movies 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.

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."

While apparently touching on the gap between poor and rich with the main protagonist's decision to choose the mine owner over her loved one, the film seems to veer away from Jia's acclaimed work about the have-nots and left-behinds in China.

Despite his huge fame in China, the director has never had box-office success in a country where he says independent films are increasingly difficult to get to market - partly due to the 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 film-maker - 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 US$16 million (S$20 million) mark at the box office.

mbx/gk Entertainment-film-festival-Cannes-2014-ChinaAFP 200228 GMT MAY 14