One of the greatest filmmakers currently working, Jia Zhangke has become one of the most vital and poetic chroniclers of modern day China. From his early independent films such as Unknown Pleasures (2002), to state-approved productions such as The World (2004), Still Life (2006), and 24 City (2008), Jia offers visually beautiful yet pointed and provocative critiques of China’s rush to progress and prosperity, which leaves many behind.
The serene surfaces of much of Jia’s work belie the unsettledness and anxiety that occurs in his films, as people struggle to deal with a rapidly changing society in which the gulf between the haves and have-nots have become more evident. As China’s communistic and collective past gives way to an increasingly merciless market-driven economy, those who suffer economic and social injustices often find it difficult, if not impossible, to find adequate ways to achieve redress of their grievances, and instead turn to violence as a resolution or to protest a system that seems conspired against them.
This dangerous and potentially explosive situation forms the backdrop to Jia’s latest film, A Touch of Sin, which recently had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. This is Jia’s most viscerally provocative critique of contemporary China to date, one which radically ruptures the contemplative structures of his recent work with often shocking scenes of violence that provide an electric urgency to the performances and visuals on display. It’s a film ripped from the headlines, like a Chinese version of Law and Order, consisting of four interrelated vignettes based on true-life stories that circulated widely on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Each focuses on a character that turns to violence as a reaction to indignities visited upon them by those wealthier and more powerful than they are: this is class warfare with a vengeance.
It would at first seem rather amazing that a film such as this, which touches upon such subjects as state corruption, the dehumanizing aspects of factory work, and prostitution, was actually approved by the government censorship system, but indeed it was. However, Jia has cleverly couched his barbed critiques and vividly expressed anger in the syntax of genre cinema, using the grand theatrics of violent action spectacle as a potent vehicle to get his messages across. A Touch of Sin also gains inspiration from classic wuxia, or martial arts films, for its thematic and visual references; the English title is an homage to King Hu’s wuxia classic A Touch of Zen. Jia also references classic Chinese literature and Peking Opera to add to the rich cultural fabric that makes his film such a beautifully resonant work.
The four stories encompass a broad geographical swath of China, each set in a different province; we travel from the northern to the southern end of the country. In the first story, Dahai (Jiang Wu), a former miner in Shanxi province (Jia’s home state), is angry about the owner’s selling off the state-owned mine and failing to live up to his promise to share the profits with the displaced workers. After unsuccessfully attempting to bring this to the attention of state authorities in Beijing, and suffering the humiliation of being publicly beaten when he confronts the mine owner, he sets out to settle matters himself with the help of a shotgun.
The second story centers on Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), a migrant worker visiting his family in his hometown of Chongqing over the Chinese New Year. Zhou San has gained possession of a gun, which he uses in the film’s arresting opening sequence when he shoots three men, Old West gunslinger-style, when they try to rob him with hatchets as weapons. He later turns to the practice of armed robbery himself as a faster way of earning money than migrant work.
In the third story, set in Hubei province, Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and frequent star of his films), is having an affair with Youliang (Zhang Jiayi), a married man. She parts company with him after she gives him an ultimatum to choose between her and his wife. Xiao Yu works as a receptionist at a sauna, where Youliang’s wife, accompanied by a thuggish companion, tracks her down. The two beat her up on the street, right in front of her coworkers. Xiao Yu is further humiliated later by a sauna customer who slaps her repeatedly with a wad of cash when she refuses to sell him sexual favors.
Set in the southern province of Guangdong, Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a young factory worker, is punished for causing injury to a coworker n the fourth story. His future wages are taken away and given to the injured coworker as compensation, so he quits the job and flees town, ending up in Dongguan, a place known for its booming sex trade. He finds a job at a luxury hotel/upscale brothel, where he falls in love with one of the girls working there. Unfortunately, a true relationship proves impossible between them.
A Touch of Sin, placed in the context of Jia Zhangke’s still evolving career, proves to be a logical progression from his previous, much calmer work. Artfully directed and beautifully shot by his regular cinematographer Yu Likwai, this film finds Jia largely jettisoning the art-house-friendly approach that has deservedly won him numerous accolades from film festivals and garlands of praise from critics. He replaces this with the immediacy of reality-based pulp fiction, sounding a loud warning to his country about the dangers of ignoring the injustices brought on by the pursuit of wealth and the glorification of greed and materialism. A Touch of Sin’s final shot has a crowd of people facing the camera as a performer from a Peking Opera performance intones, “Do you understand your sin?” Jia Zhangke’s searing, brilliant work challenges China to come up with the right answer to that question.