Interview: Noah Cowan On A Touch of Sin


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Editor’s Notes: The following interview with TIFF Bell Lightbox Artistic Director Noah Cowan is part of our coverage for TIFF’s A Century of Chinese Cinema which runs from June 5th to August 11th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.

Politcally speaking, the most important Chinese film of the next year or so is probably going to be Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin. The edgy Cannes award-winner has a planned Chinese release date sometime in the fall – but it has been plagued by rumours of censorship and a recut version for domestic audiences.

Jia is a Sixth Generation filmmaker (meaning he rose to prominence in the 90s) known low-budget social commentary on Chinese lives dislocated by capitalism and development. His A Touch of Sin, which I saw at Cannes, is uneven but fascinating, maybe the Competition’s most daring film. The title puns on the classic 1972 wuxia pian film A Touch of Zen, a somewhat misleading in-joke. Jia’s series of interconnected stories are based on contemporary Chinese news stories: narratives of downtrodden Chinese using violence to fight for social justice.


Noah Cowan, artistic director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, shared his thoughts with Next Projection during an interview on the Century of Chinese Cinema program, running at the Lightbox until August 11th.

“The chance of that movie being shown in any kind of distribution apparatus in China is remote,” says Cowan flatly.

At a Cannes press conference, actor Jiang Wu (brother to highly successful actor-director Jian Wen) told reporters his character was a reinvention of the peasant rebel. Rural resistance is a common trope throughout Chinese history; peasant warriors founded two dynasties.

“The idea of the rebelliousness peasant probably isn’t the most disturbing feature of the film for Chinese censors,” Cowan weighs in, “but it’s definitely something they’re not interested in discussing I think the strongly-phrased cautionary tale about urban factory life is probably the greatest crime of the film.”

According to many sociologists, the main concern of Beijing policy-makers is the smooth transition of China’s enormous peasant class into an urban working class. A Touch of Sin’s first vignette, featuring an abused factory worker’s transition from vocal dissident to capitalist-slaying gunslinger, is a bit of a problem for the “harmonious society”.

The way Jia inserts kung fu into an otherwise realistic plot oddly conflates two very different styles of film-making: Hong Kong action and kitchen sink realism. Much was made of this genre mashup at Cannes, but Cowan sees a different lesson in Jia’s madness.

“I think reading it through the lens of wuxia pian feels like a bit of a blind alley. The extremely focused, concentrated, and rapid escalation of violence doesn’t feel especially Chinese to me. For me it comes from another family of sources, I’d say Akira Kurosawa’s bloodiest films through the lens of Hollywood. There’s this murmuring of unrest and a lot of silence and a lot of tension and then – boom! – you’re hit with something extremely violent.”

Jia’s international prestige should mean that Westerners (in large cities, at least) will be able to see A Touch of Sin at some point in the fall or early 2014.


About Author

Alex is a recent University of Toronto graduate. He is studying Mandarin, going to film festivals, and prepping on his film lore like QT in the 80s. If you're in Beijing over the next few years and do film journalism, get in touch!