Top Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke ("A Touch of Sin") will voyage into the future as he sets "Mountains May Depart" as his next film. The film, which starts production in October, will also be Jia's first to be shot outside China.
"I want to examine how Chinese society is changing, how our emotions change over time and how in the future we may have lost our feelings," said Jia.
"A Touch of Sin," which paints a brutal picture of corruption and venality in contemporary China, appeared in competition last year in Cannes and earned Jia the best screenplay Palme.
Jia said that that he is still working towards a Chinese release of "A Touch of Sin" despite the film having been denied an outing to date.
"Mountains May Depart" is currently being set up as a co-venture involving Jia's Xstream Pictures (Beijing), Shanghai Film Group and France's MK2 and with Japan's Shozo Ichiyama as producer - essentially same partnership behind "A Touch of Sin." Jia says that he is also looking for another overseas finance partner as the last third of the film takes place in a futuristic version of Australia.
MK2 is on set as international sales agent and French distributor. Japan's Office Kitano is also in active negotiations to board.
The three-part story starts in the 1990s and involves a young couple from Shanxi Province where the young woman - to be played by Jia regular Zhao Tao - breaks his heart by marrying a rich mine owner. In the present day, the man returns to Shanxi to says his farewells and discovers his old flame divorced and estranged from her son. The final segment moves to 2025 Australia, where the son is living a meaningless existence working in a casino. The only Chinese character he is able read is "mother."
Nearly all of Jia's films have adopted an episodic structure, and "Mountains May Depart" continues the trend. "Maybe that's the way I see the world. I'm interested in people at different times and different situations," he said. "All the elements are combined very organically."
Jia says that other casting elements and budgeting will be finalized shortly after he returns to China from Cannes. The screenplay will also be submitted for script approval by China's Film Bureau next month.
"A Touch of Sin" was also approved by China's censors, but that has not prevented the theatrical release being repeatedly postponed by Chinese authorities.
"It got approved in April 2013, just ahead of Cannes, and was a very smooth process. We met with cinemas through August and September and got excellent feedback, enabling us to settle on a December release with perhaps 15% of available screens," Jia said. "But in October the censorship department called up with questions about our distribution, they said they had worries about the violence in the picture.
"In China we don't have a rating system, so they wanted to know if it was really suitable for all audiences. I suggested a compromise in which we put up an on-screen warning saying that it is not suitable for under 16s. Perhaps the censorship bureau has other ideas. Maybe because the film is too close to the reality of modern Chinese society.
"I can't predict the outcome of our discussions, but that the fact that we are still talking is progress. Earlier in my career there was no discussion."
Jia says that at no stage since completion have the Chinese censors sought cut or changes to the film. "The discussions are not about modifications. We made all the cuts they asked for before final censorship approval," he said.
U.S. distributor Koch Lorber Films had to be given special permission by MK2 to break the terms of its license that initially prevented it releasing in the North American home entertainment sector ahead of a Chinese theatrical release.
A complicating factor for a possible Chinese release is the film's numerous international outings, which mean that pirated hard copies and illegal online versions of "Sin" are now circulating within China.
"Within one week of these appearing, there were 30,000 comments online about the film. So I can only imagine the number of people who have already seen it," Jia said. "But that level of interest makes our distributor very confident that if we get a release it will be successful."
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