Growing up listening to music that praises proletarian heroes, workers and farmers, Jia Zhangke (賈樟柯) was shocked when he first heard Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) singing on pirate radio about love, fine wine and everything that centered on the individual instead of the community. Years later, as a high school student and aspiring poet, he spent much of his free time at a video hall where customers would pay to see movies smuggled in from Hong Kong or Taiwan. Since the operation was free from state censorship, audiences were able to see anything from erotic films to If I Were for Real (假如我是真的), Wang Tung‘s (王童) 1981 movie about the cruelty of the Cultural Revolution.
“The arrival of pop culture brought an earth-shaking change … revealing the experiences of ordinary people in everyday situations, while claiming the right to express oneself and to entertain,” Jia said.
Today, Jia is internationally renowned for films that critically explore China’s society. The director was in Taipei earlier this month to attend the opening of a mini retrospective that is currently screening five of his works. Amid the media hubbub over whether or not his latest film, A Touch of Sin (天注定), has been banned by the Chinese authorities because it touches on politically sensitive topics, Jia delighted local fans and cinephiles with a talk on his filmmaking career.
“I was born in 1970 in Fenyang, Shanxi,” the director said by way of introduction to a packed audience.
It’s a simple utterance that contains the key to understanding Jia’s cinematic world and his inspiration.
THE PERSONAL AND THE COLLECTIVE
Born six years prior to the end of the Cultural Revolution, Jia says that an indelible part of his childhood memory was constant hunger. But that all changed in 1978, when economic reforms were launched. Food became sufficient; motorcycles began to appear, and with limited choices of entertainment, young people — from seven-year-old elementary schoolers to young adults — hung out on street corners, got into fights and listened to pop songs on pirate radio in which “the bourgeois celebrated their life.” At video halls, movies by directors such as John Woo (吳宇森), Tsui Hark (徐克), King Hu (胡金銓) and Chang Cheh (張徹) fed hungry young minds like Jia’s.
“I lived through that particular moment in history, at the transition from the Cultural Revolution to China’s economic reform. It generated tremendous changes which continue to reverberate today. It provides an important context to my films. I have always been and still am interested in China’s rapid change and how it affects individuals,” he said.
The teenage Jia yearned to break away from his stifling, poverty-stricken life in Fenyang. He formed a poetry club in high school and, at one point, learned breakdancing. When an opportunity to tour with a performance group as a break dancer presented itself, the wannabe adventurer jumped at it.
“I imagined a completely new world. We travelled hundreds of kilometers, passing the Yellow River and all the way to Inner Mongolia. Then I realized [that the poverty] was the same everywhere,” Jia recalls.
However, it was Chen Kaige’s (陳凱歌) Yellow Earth (黃土地) that prompted Jia to study film.
“I saw my hometown depicted in a film for the very first time: deep poverty, silent people and the vast land that stretches as far as the eye can see. It was at that moment that I decided to become a film director,” Jia says.