BEIJING -- JIA ZHANGKE, China's most prominent art house director, had been preparing to make his first big-budget martial arts film, set in dynastic China, when reality intruded in the form of the Internet.
Specifically, Mr. Jia discovered the world of Twitter-like microblogs, which many Chinese have been reading in recent years to get the unvarnished daily news and opinions that are all but absent from the state-run news media. He was bombarded with news from all corners of China, much of it tied to the crimes of corrupt officials or businesspeople: rape, land seizures, industrial pollution. In many of those cases, he said, frustrated ordinary Chinese had been provoked to commit acts of bloodshed.
"I slowly began to see the problem of individual violence in society," the soft-spoken Mr. Jia, 43, said one recent afternoon in his office in northwest Beijing. "There are many tragedies or societal problems in which people in the end rebel, resulting in a very big tragedy. So I began to pay more and more attention to this problem, because, frankly speaking, I feel like Chinese people do not really understand the problem of violence because society has never had a widespread discussion of the problem."
Mr. Jia decided to put the dynastic epic aside and make a different kind of action film, one more in line with his body of work. Called "A Touch of Sin," the work had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it won the prize for best screenplay, and is showing this fall at various film festivals, including in New York this month. It is tentatively scheduled to open in China in November.
The movie, based on news events, tells four interwoven stories of ordinary Chinese, often migrant workers far from home, who reach a boiling point under extreme circumstances and resort to violence. A mineworker in Mr. Jia's native Shanxi Province goes on a shooting rampage against the mine owner, village chief and other local bosses. A young factory worker in the south finds only despair at a company resembling Foxconn, the Taiwanese firm that builds Apple products.
Unlikely as it sounds, one thing that carried over from Mr. Jia's original idea for a dynastic movie was the form of the traditional martial arts film, known as wuxia. "I thought these four stories were completely like the martial arts films from the past, with the only exception being that they occurred in contemporary China," Mr. Jia said. "So I thought I could use the traditional martial arts style to film the movie I wanted to make about today's China."
The protagonists all try, in various bloody ways, to take control of their fate. One of the most striking images is that of a massage parlor worker played by Zhao Tao, Mr. Jia's wife and longtime collaborator, walking down a hallway with her white shirt soaked in blood and holding a knife in front of her. Minutes earlier, an abusive customer had tried to rape her, only to meet a grisly end.
"The reality is there are more and more of these violent stories," Ms. Zhao said in a telephone interview. "I think that's what touches him. That's our reality in China now."
THIS is Mr. Jia's sixth full-length narrative film, and it shows how far he has come since his first three feature films, all set in his hometown, Fengyang. Mr. Jia grew up in an austere household there, where his father was a schoolteacher and his mother was a shop assistant. He once told The New Yorker that his favorite childhood movie was "Breakin'," a 1984 American film about break dancing; he even taught himself some of the moves and performed with a traveling song-and-dance troupe.
After entering the Beijing Film Academy in 1993, Mr. Jia became associated with "the sixth generation" of Chinese filmmakers, who eschewed the lush cinematography and historical subjects of predecessors for cleareyed depictions of contemporary China in the throes of change. His first features mined Fengyang for gritty, intimate portraits -- a pickpocket in "Xiao Wu," a musical performance troupe in "Platform," young lovers in "Unknown Pleasures."
Starting with his fourth feature, "The World," released in 2004 with the approval of the state film bureau, Mr. Jia began setting his stories in other parts of China to depict the social dissonance accompanying the nation's economic transformation. "Still Life," set in a town on the Yangtze about to be flooded because of construction of the Three Gorges Dam, won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the 2006 Venice Film Festival.
"A Touch of Sin" is a logical next step, perhaps even the conclusion, of that thematic drive. For this film, Mr. Jia set each of the four tales in a different corner of the country, to try to capture what he called the movement of Chinese as they seek their fortunes and the intersection of lives against this backdrop of motion.
"In these few years, because of the speed of China's transformation, I have become very interested in history," Mr. Jia said. "And I have also become interested in China's societal problems, its economic problems, its political problems. So I feel now with 'A Touch of Sin,' it's not just an issue of individual emotions, but it is also an expression of the state of the entire nation."
Mr. Jia added: "Reform has brought about many problems. These problems need to be solved as soon as possible. Prominent among these are the problem of social inequality and problems such as distribution of income."
Shelly Kraicer, a film critic and curator who lives in Beijing, noted that the film was a departure in several ways for Mr. Jia. Perhaps most significantly, it is populist in both form and content. "He's using cinema now in a way that has parallels with the journalist-songwriters of the early 1960s: progressive-radicals like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs who converted the headlines of the day into the lyrics of their songs," Mr. Kraicer said.
"It seems to me a response to an emergency," he added. "Certain things need to be said, and need to be said directly, clearly, to as large, and as activated, a Chinese audience as possible."
AT $4 million, the budget was the largest of Mr. Jia's movies, with two-thirds of the financing coming from domestic companies. Mr. Jia began preproduction in August 2012. Then came the grueling production period, from October 2012 to March 2013, with shooting in four locations around the country. Mr. Jia edited the film himself, as he usually does. To do that, he went to the gritty coal-production city of Datong, in Shanxi, and holed up in a hotel room for a week.
After submitting a cut to the state film censorship panel, Mr. Jia waited about three weeks before getting a response. He got two pages of required changes and recommendations, just in time for him to do another edit before Cannes. He said the requests were surprisingly light. The mandatory changes pertained to some snatches of dialogue that censors deemed too coarse, Mr. Jia said. In a list of recommended changes, the censors said the film could do with less violence.
Mr. Jia pushed back in a written response, and the censors backed off, he said. "I feel like in a film that is intended to be a reflection on violence, if we don't see the destructiveness of violence, then I don't know what I'm trying to say," Mr. Jia said.
Why did the censors go so light? Mr. Jia said he suspected it was because the news articles on which the film was based had already made the rounds on microblogs. The narratives had entered the public consciousness in a way that might never have happened 10 or even five years ago, before the Internet became such a social force in China.
"These stories are a sort of record that cannot be taken back," he said. "It's a record of reality."
Amy Qin and Mia Li contributed research.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.