Directed by: Zhangke Jia.
Written by: Zhangke Jia.
Starring: Wu Jiang (Dahai), Baoqiang Wang (Zhou San), Tao Zhao (Xiao Yu), Lanshan Luo (Xiao Hui).
Throughout his entire career, Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke has been interested in documenting the changing economic landscape of China – that has been sold as a good thing that provides more freedom and opportunity for the people of China, but the reality is much more complex than the officially sanctioned version. Up until A Touch of Sin however, his films have been rather mournful, a series of sad indictments of the new system, and its failures. On the surface, A Touch of Sin seems like a major departure for Jia – this is a brutally violent, bloody film, that uses old school Wuxia films as a visual influence. Yet underneath the violent, angry surface of Jia’s film, lies the same concerns. The characters in A Touch of Sin are not all that different than the ones in Jia’s Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World or Still Life – they are just a little older, and a whole lot angrier.
A Touch of Sin takes four true life incidents – three that end in murder, one in suicide – that Jia says represents a disturbing new trend of seemingly random violence in China. The movie traverses pretty much the entire country, and in four half hour segments show four characters that have simply had enough, and eventually snap. Only one of these characters seems at ease with what he does – and endeavors to get away with it.
The first segment is about Dahai (Wu Jiang), an angry man who lives in a village who more than a decade ago sold off their mining rights to a private company. As part of that deal, 40% of the profits were supposed to be funneled back into the village itself – something that hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, the owner of the company has become rich – his latest purchase is a private jet. The village Chief won’t take Dahai’s complaint seriously – and Dahai is convinced he’s on the take. The other villagers either don’t seem to care, or else are too scared to say anything for fear of reprisals – and after what happens to Dahai when he voices his objection, it’s no wonder. The entire segment builds to a violent finale – a brutal, bloody killing spree that would make Sergio Leone (or Quentin Tarantino) proud.
The film that switches focus to Zhou San (Baoqiang Wang) – or more accurately, refocuses on him, as the movie opens with a very brief scene of him on a motorcycle being confronted by the three thugs who would have been better off to leave him alone. Zhou San seems to be a drifter, travelling the country either by motorcycle or boat, wearing his Chicago Bulls toque (the fact that Chicago has its own epidemic of gun crime is no coincidence). He comes back to his hometown on the occasion of his mother’s 70th birthday (at New Years) – and visits briefly with his wife and son. He isn’t there long, but the portrait we get of his more “respectable” brothers makes you think they’re crooks like him – but just in a different way. Before long, he heads back onto the road – and planning and executing his latest killing and robbery. His story is not unlike the ones in the documentary Last Train Home – about workers who depending on the season, travel the country for work, only to return at New Year’s. Zhou San, like them, goes to where the work is.
Next up is the story of Xiao Yu (played by perpetual Jia muse Tao Zhao). She is a woman in love with a married man, who is getting tired of his promises to leave his wife and be with her. Yet, at the train station saying goodbye, she agrees to give him another six months to decide what he wants to do – before going back to her job as a receptionist at a “massage parlor” – where she greets the exclusively male clientele with the question “Sauna or the night?”, letting everyone know what kind of massage parlor this is. She will have two violent confrontations during her segment – first when the wife of the man she’s having an affair with confronts her – goons in tow – and second when a pair of men (who we have seen in a previous segment) demand that she be the one who gives them a “massage” – finally pushing her to the point where she snaps.
The movie ends with the saddest segment – as it tell the story of Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo), who works at a factory when the segment begins – only to have to leave that job because of an accident. He then works as a wait at an “upscale” hotel – and falls for one of the female employees there, who has to dress in degrading outfits, and dance for the male clientele again – until they want something more for them. He again leaves that job – and another – and under pressure from home to send more money, he too, will eventually snap.
A Touch of Sin is an angry film. If the previous films made by Jia were about the downside of China’s conversion to capitalism – A Touch of Sin is still about that transition, but is about more hopeless characters – people who cannot see another way out for themselves. Jia was disturbed by the rising “random” violence in China – and that is what inspired him to make the film. But the Jia, the violence is anything but random – it comes out of people in hopeless economic situations. Social issues are at the heart of the violence, and to Jia it’s only going to get worse. The film is also a technical marvel. The title is a play on the wuxia film classic A Touch of Zen, directed by King Hu, who Jia considers an major influence on his film. Though widely seen as simple kung fu films, Jia sees in the work of Hu a social and political elements. The film has been impeccably crafted, both in the more realistic sequences, and the stylized violence.
Jia Zhnagke has long since been a favorite of film critics, even if his films have never made much of a dent at the North American box office. He was cited by different polls in magazines such as Film Comment and Cinemascope as one of the best directors of the last decade. If Jia is ever to have a breakthrough film – and I doubt he will – A Touch of Sin could, and should, be that film. Because in many ways it is a genre film, Western audiences will be more comfortable with it that his previous films, that took a more realistic (and at times surrealistic) approach to his themes. But the film is every inch a Jia Zhangke film. It’s just that over time, he – like the characters in this film – has become angrier. This is one of the year’s best films.