A Touch of Sin is Jia Zhangke’s portrait of the new China, a society which is caught in the gap between tradition and ruthless capitalism gone awry, where greed, corruption and despair are rampant and fully embraced by the new rich.
Jia Zhangke is a representative of the so-called ‘Sixth Generation’ in Chinese filmmaking, an edgy, underground film movement which originated in post-1990 China after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and operates mostly without any state funding or backing. The movement’s films are characterised by what is mostly an individualistic, anti-romantic, life-view with a specific focus on themes such as disorientation of an alienated youth, rebellion and a dissatisfaction with contemporary social tensions of a China in transition. The main characters tend to be marginalised individuals and the less represented fringes of a society entering into the modern capitalist market.
The film, which won Jia Zhangke the screenplay award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, is structured around four tales, all of which are based on real life incidents taken from Chinese newspapers, stories of random acts of violence by ordinary people who suffer from oppression and exploitation by the new ruling classes in a fast moving society which appears eager to shed most of its old, traditional values. Although the stories are set on their own and are situated in different Chinese provinces, they are loosely related in that some of the characters may randomly wander from one story into the next to create a bridge between the different story-lines. The protagonists are all victims, one way or the other, of this new China and just one step away from disaster.
The first story is set in a coal mining community in a remote province of China where an angry and lonely mine worker, Hu Dahai, tries to fight corruption which has crept into the local community after a local official sold off the state-owned coal mine to an entrepreneur who has failed to deliver on his promise to have the local population share in the profits. The opulence and wealth displayed by the now rich tycoon during a brief visit to the area stands in stark contrast to the poverty of the local community of which only some bribed local officials appear to have shared in some of the economic benefits. When Dahai’s efforts to fight the injustice through the official channels appear fruitless – the post office worker simply refuses to send off his letter to the authorities because the address details are incomplete – he publicly confronts the tycoon of his grievances during the visit, only to then find himself beaten up by the tycoon’s hirelings who try to shut him up with some hush money. It is at that point when Dahai decides to take matters in his own hand by taking up his old army rifle and going on a killing spree.
In the second story we meet a motorcyclist who appears to lead the life of an outlaw, permanently on the run and this time on his way back to his village to celebrate his mother’s 70th birthday. The village has evolved into a modern urban centre with no jobs to offer to its alienated, unskilled, rural workers. With no job to support his wife and child the protagonist takes refuge to his gun, which represents the only power he is familiar with and has control over.
In the third instalment we are introduced to a young, virtuous, woman who works as a receptionist in a massage parlour. She has been in an affair with a married man and has now given him a final ultimatum to choose between her or his wife. She finds herself put under a lot of pressure from many sides, her lover’s estranged, jealous, wife who has discovered her husband’s infidelity and two abusive male visitors to the massage parlour who think that money can buy them everything, including forcing her to have sex with them. But it is only so long that she is able to resist these humiliations …
The final story is that of a young factory worker who is blamed for a workplace accident and moves on to take up the job of a greeter in an upmarket brothel in a nearby town, where the newly rich clientele pick their favourite girl from a dance line of young girls, all dressed in faux Red Army outfits. The pressure to be able to stay afloat in a very competitive society and send his mother the monthly payments she is relying on becomes too much and has tragic consequences.
Although Jia Zhangke films paint a picture of an economically booming but morally bankrupt contemporary China, his message is never one of nostalgia for times past or a recipe for what a better China should look like. He merely registers what is happening and how an uncontrolled economic boom has caused seismic shifts in social order, people’s behaviour and working conditions. In each story, the main character reaches a breaking point under the influence of the constant pressure he/she lives under in a society where greed has trickled down to everyone. The stories told become even more stark and unsettling in the absence of any music accompanying them and the violence used is almost Tarantino-like in its brutality and directness, an effect greatly enhanced in the close and mobile camera-work by Yu Lik-Wai which makes the viewer a bystander and close observer. As the film progresses and we move from one story to the other, the stories do become slightly predictable in the use of violence: it is almost waiting for the next person to be killed. The ending was also unsatisfying and I don’t think there was any need to make an effort to link the stories together by having the character in the third story suddenly show up in the village portrayed in the first story. Having said that though, this film has everything to be a very important piece of work, not in the least because of its gripping and thought-provoking subject matter at a key moment in the development of Chinese society.
A Touch of Sin was released in UK cinemas 16th May 2014.
Directed by: Jia Zhangke
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Wang Baoqiang, Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan
Running time: 133 min