Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is a shockingly bleak and sad tale of ordinary Chinese lives blighted by catastrophe in a rapidly changing modern world, giving the audience a good drubbing and with only a glimmer of hope at the end.
Written and directed Jia Zhangke, China/Japan, 2013 Using unaffected and naturalistic cinematography, the film is dramatically simple, based on four loosely linked stories derived from true incidents, the first a tale of a man determined to redress the filching of village land for mining. In the second a young itinerant family man evinces a taste for killing; in the third, a spa receptionist is forced to protect herself against rape; and the fourth is about a teenager overwhelmed by distressing circumstances. A brief epilogue links back to earlier storylines and poses a final, demanding question for us all. The protagonists of the stories are either violently assertive or despairing but are all victims in the end. They live in a world of cruel, vindictive narcissism (and cruelty to animals is also a distressing part of the film). In this world, money is king and does most of the talking, emblematic of the unprecedented rise of capitalism in modern China (catching up with the rest of us) which, like an unstoppable tsunami, has swept through the life of the nation, swamping any sense of moral compass and forcing everyone to toe its greedy line. Though the characters in the stories are remarkably indifferent to wealth, motivated rather by injustice, boredom, outrage and despair, money nevertheless touches all of their lives in corrosive ways. We see a country that, through a calamitous revolution, threw its cultural riches to the wind, and today has but a threadbare remembrance of them in operatic melodramas. The parvenu capitalists are no less destructive than the old revolutionaries, tearing the environment apart, wrecking already downtrodden lives and triumphantly amassing enormous wealth. Acquisitiveness is out of control, as we encounter Maseratis, private jets, reported huge collections of Louis Vuitton bags, artwork bought over the phone, bling, and an astonishingly orchestrated parade of prostitutes marching through an hotel lobby dressed provocatively as young revolutionaries. And if money will not buy absolutely everything, then force will do the trick, as the young receptionist, at first beaten repeatedly over the head with a wad of banknotes in an agonising, seemingly endless sequence by a man intent on raping her, protects herself in a startling wuxia–like scene of orchestrated violence. In this morose and dangerous climate of sleek, heartless modernity, environmental destruction and extreme cruelty, the abused moral compass of the oppressed sometimes breaks forth in acts of retribution, compared with the diminished, sorry little homilies of Chinese opera, a remnant from a lost world.
Though exactingly bleak, the film somehow delivers a dose of hope as we cleave operatically to those who are heroic in the face of terrible odds. In the first story, in Shaanxi province in the north, unscrupulous local business men have cheated the townsfolk of the profits generated by the village mine (formerly state-owned but sold to a local boy made good), the mine owner flying in on a private jet and expecting the villagers to greet him as their saviour. A lone warrior called Dahai stands against the land grab and refuses to be bought off. The man arms himself with a shotgun draped in a tiger banner and, like an avenging angel, fearless and bold, strolls around the village and the mine complex exacting his toll. As with the other stories, this ends without resolution and moves without a break to the next tale. In stark contrast to all around him, money cannot buy him. His moral compass is unmoveable if naïve. In the face of this accumulation of moral direction (the consciously heroic stance and the rapacity and self-satisfaction of the mine owners), what judgements are we, the audience, likely to make?
A similar moral compass is presented to us in the third story, that of the female spa receptionist who is having an affair with a married man, and refuses to accompany him to Ghangzhou until he has left his wife. In the meantime, we see local town officials extorting money in the form of a toll from lorry drivers coming from an upland airport construction site – incidentally at the home town of the woman. Later, two of the officials visit the spa sauna (and brothel) where the woman works and force themselves upon her, precipitating the distressing money-beating incident (astonishingly, not a symbolic cinematographic invention but an incident from the true-life account)*. Taking its cue from contemporary extreme Japanese cinema (possibly connected with partial Japanese funding for the film), and evocative of Toshiya Fujita’s early Lady Snowblood (1973), in a shockingly violent moment, she asserts herself. With her hair held high in a hefty, long ponytail, her appearance also evokes directly the Chinese cinematic tradition of wuxia heroines. She wanders off into the night in a shocked state, the story unresolved, and we are again confronted by our own inability to escape from judging her actions, having, like the first story, been delivered strong points of view from the director.
A Touch of Sin is allied with the Chinese martial-arts tradition (the title reminds us of the founding film A Touch of Zen). However, it also plays with conventions of western mainstream cinema, including the aforementioned illusion of freedom conferred by crime and a romance of action centred on our habit of identification with the inspiring power of a lone warrior. However, Jia Zhangke enlarges and deepens these conventions by invoking a moral and comprehensible social compass and a need for judgement, that goes beyond the balletic and the formulaic. The film inevitably recalls other episodic films, notably those of Inirratu, but introduces random linkages in an inventive and naturalistic way without a hint of contrivance or pomposity. Breathtaking in its unblinking view, its intense passion, geographical scope, variety of situations, symbolic power and crafty storytelling, A Touch of Sin has a veracity derived from true incidents and, despite the arguably bleak viewpoint of the director, nevertheless constantly forces the audience to make judgements of its own.
*See the Deng Yujiao Incident (2009) on Wikipedia.
** Not so. See the Deng Yujiao Incident: after an international outcry, Deng Yujiao was tried for a lesser charge of ‘intentional assault’ and given a lenient sentence. One therefore assumes that only a short time has elapsed from the receptionist’s trial to her presenting herself for a job, as the time-frame of the film is fairly tight.
I am indebted to Charlie Baker for his views on issues of judgement and storytelling styles in this film and to his perceptive reference to Lady Snowblood; to my son Alasdair for his acute views on the structure and content of the film and its cinematography (and good copy-editing) and, as a Shanghai resident, for his views on modern Chinese life – to the extent that I have deemed this a joint review; and to my daughter-in-law Tatiana for her helpful grasp of continental Chinese geography and similarly acute observations on Chinese culture.
Bob and Alasdair Connell.