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(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg's jury. We're going through the list by director and in alphabetical order -- next up, Jia Zhang Ke's "A Touch of Sin.")
The director: Jia Zhangke (Chinese, 42 years old). Born in Fenyang, Jia studied at the Beijing Film Academy -- alumni of which include Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige -- before making his first three features (beginning with his 1997 debut "The Pickpocket") outside the country's State Administration. Where the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (including Zhang and Chen) opened up post-Cultural Revolution Chinese cinema to global audiences, Jia is a pioneering figure of the more underground-inclined Sixth Generation, embracing documentary technique, minimalist narrative and digital video to offer a harder, sparer view of everyday life in contemporary China. Unsurprisingly, his films haven't enjoyed as much international crossover success as his Fifth Generation predecessors, though he's a favorite of A-list festival programmers -- and has furthermore been working with state approval since 2004's "The World." His most widely distributed film to date, "Still Life," won the top prize at Venice in 2006, yet 10 features (seven narrative, three documentary) into his career, he's still largely unknown outside cineaste circles -- wherein the word "important" is routinely affixed to his name. (Detractors may opt for "dour.")
The talent: Jia has often favored non-professional ensembles in the past, but not this time: the cast includes Jiang Wu ("Let the Bullets Fly"), Wang Baoqiang (winner of several festival awards as a teenager for 2003's "Blind Shaft") and Jia's own wife Zhao Tao, who has been his muse over five previous features. (Only more recently has she branched out into working for other filmmakers, and with some success: 2011's "Li and the Poet" won her the Italian Oscar, the David di Donatello Award, for Best Actress.) Below the line, too, it would appear that Jia has turned his back on the scrappiness of past efforts, employing the services of Polish cinematographer Pawel Edelman, an Oscar nominee for 2002 Palme d'Or winner "The Pianist." (Still Roman Polanski's DP of choice, Edelman also shows up in Competition with "Venus in Fur,"making him one of the more wide-ranging double-dippers in this year's lineup.)
The pitch: "A Touch of Sin" is the first Chinese entry in Competition since 2010 -- which, coincidentally enough, is also when Jia's last film, the Shanghai-focused documentary "I Wish I Knew," premiered in Un Certain Regard. His latest represents a rather dramatic shift in aesthetic and sensibility: effectively Jia's first studio film (a collaboration between the director's own Xstream Productions and the heavyweight Shanghai Film Group), it's a sprawling multi-narrative drama taking place across a range of social and geographical environments, rural and urban, within contemporary China. Plot details are vague for what Jia has described as a "major production" and a "road movie with action scenes"; lest you think the socially conscious auteur has gone wholly wu xia on us, we're also told its four interwoven stories reflect on China as "an economic giant being slowly eroded by violence." Shot over five months with the director's largest crew to date, the film weighs in at 135 minutes -- one of the Competition's bulkier entries.
The pedigree: Jia is arguably more a Venice pet than a Cannes one: he's been in competition three times on the Lido and has won several awards there, culminating, of course, in the profile-elevating Golden Lion for 2006's broadly acclaimed "Still Life." Following 2002's "Unknown Pleasures" and 2008's "24 City," "A Touch of Sin" is Jia's third Competition entry at Cannes, levelling the score to some extent -- though the director has yet to win a single award on the Croisette. Meanwhile, the festival cut him down to size in 2010, when he was demoted to Un Certain Regard with "I Wish I Knew" -- not an unusual or especially embarrassing fate for a documentary, though the festival then salted this mild wound by belatedly promoting a different Chinese UCR entry from a less celebrated director, Wang Xiaoshuai's poorly received "Chongqing Blues," to Competition status. Jia's devoted critical cheerleaders will applaud this return to the Competition fold as a victory in itself, however the film is received.
The buzz: Modest, if only because the film is a mostly unknown quantity (or, if you will, an unknown pleasure) at this point. As mentioned above, Jia has devoted advocates in the critical community -- though the new film's concessions to mainstream Chinese cinema run the risk of alienating at least some of them, while perhaps recruiting others. The scarcity of Chinese entries in recent Competition lineups lends this one something of a profile boost -- particularly with two other Chinese-language entries in other strands of this year's Official Selection to underline the point.
The odds: Cannes betting expert Neil Young gives "A Touch of Sin" healthy but conservative odds of 12-1 for the Palme, which sounds right to me -- his auteur status has risen to the point that his Cannes awards duck seems unlikely to continue for too much longer. But while his critical following has grown, I'd say only "Still Life" among his previous films had the unifying emotional heft that can win over an entire jury. Juror Ang Lee could conceivably lead support for a rare Chinese-language contender, but if Jia's stylistic shift pays off, a Jury Prize or Best Director might be a likelier reward.
The premiere date: Friday, May 17.
In the next edition of Cannes Check, we'll be sizing up a new film from one of the few Cannes novices in this year's Competition lineup: Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue is the Warmest Color."
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