A Touch of Sin
Dir: Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2013
“I’m not an admirer of the kind of films that Zhang Yimou makes. I much prefer Jia Zhang-ke’s films, like Still Life and I Wish I Knew.”
– Chinese President Xi Jinping, quoted by Tony Rayns in Film Comment
Now playing at the Music Box Theatre is A Touch of Sin, the latest from maverick Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke. This angry, provocative, disturbing and beautiful anthology film, consisting of four loosely linked vignettes, represents a triumphant return to narrative filmmaking for Jia, the most important member of the Chinese film industry’s “sixth generation.” It is the director’s first purely fictional feature since Still Life in 2006 (following a period in which he has made numerous documentaries and shorts, and one narrative/documentary hybrid, 2008’s 24 City). It is also my favorite of Jia’s movies to date and one that has convinced me to go back and revisit his entire filmography. While I was blown away by Jia’s masterful, Beijing theme-park-set epic The World in 2004, the first of his films I ever saw, I’ve had decidedly mixed feelings about all of the others, which I now concede may represent a failure of both comprehension and taste on my part. Jia makes urgent and complex movies about his rapidly and bizarrely evolving country and its leading role within late 20th century/early 21st century global culture — what critic Jonathan Rosenbaum might call “state-of-the-planet addresses.” To be confronted with works of art this new, however, can be a bit bewildering, not unlike the 21st century itself, pushing even a seasoned cinephile like me out of my typical patterns of response and judgement. Having said that, I have no reservation about calling A Touch of Sin the best film I’ve seen all year after only one viewing. A big part of what has made Jia’s latest more immediately accessible than most of his previous work, at least for me personally, is the way he makes the difficulty in adapting to modern life the explicit theme of the film. For this reason, and many others, anyone who cares about not just cinema but what it means to be a global citizen today should see this as soon as possible, and on the big screen if possible.
The four narratives comprising A Touch of Sin are linked not only by main characters who seem unable to adapt to changing times, a bit like Monica Vitti’s character in Red Desert, but also by how their various repressed frustrations lead to acts of shocking violence: a small-town resident fed up with corruption (Jiang Wu), snaps and goes on a killing spree of local politicians and business leaders; a loner in a Chicago Bulls stocking cap (Wang Baoqiang) methodically plans a robbery that seems to be merely an excuse to shoot other people, which provides him with some kind of cathartic release; a receptionist at a massage parlor (Zhao Tao), reeling from a doomed affair with a married man, stabs an overly-aggressive client; and a young man who works a series of factory and service-industry jobs in the “free trade zone” of southern China (Luo Lanshan) commits suicide by jumping to his death from the balcony of his factory dorm. Although the stories are presented consecutively and not freely intercut in the manner of Griffith, the idea of binding a quartet of stories primarily based on thematic parallels is at least as old as 1916’s Intolerance (which, thanks to the Cohen Media Group, had a triumphant re-release in 2013). What’s most shocking, indeed groundbreaking, about A Touch of Sin, has nothing to do with narrative structure nor any one of its individual moments of carnage but rather the way each eruption of violence seems the inevitable result of social, political and economic shifts, mostly relating to the PRC’s transition from the financial wasteland of the post-Cultural Revolution years to an economic superpower still in the process of privatizing and expanding: rural workers flock to big cities in search of decent wages but find their new environment dehumanizing, ordinary citizens file petitions that fall on deaf government ears, women working temp jobs to make ends meet are harassed by wealthy businessmen with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. What’s a fellow who’s mad as hell but cannot take it anymore to do but wrap a towel emblazoned with the image of a tiger around the barrel of a rifle and take matters into his own hands? This exquisite touch, which occurs in the film’s first story, is a nod to Ti Lung’s Tiger Killer Wu Sung character in Chang Cheh’s The Water Margin (1972), the first of several wuxia nods in A Touch of Sin.
If it seems surprising that a film so explicitly critical of what the Chinese Communist government and big business are doing to its people could be made with full state-approval, perhaps the quote at the beginning of this review (which allegedly occurred during a dinner conversation between Xi Jinping and an American diplomat several years before Xi became President) provides an explanation of how that could happen. It is more likely, however, that the Chinese film industry, which is becoming privatized along with most other sectors of Chinese business, is steadily relaxing the censorship laws that would have made the existence of A Touch of Sin unthinkable even a a decade ago (all of Jia’s work prior to The World was created independently and without government permission). That he is now making high-profile movies like this — artistically accomplished (it is shot in long-take tableaux by the great Yu Lik Wai), psychologically acute and sociologically prescient — is the strongest proof yet that a sea change is underway in Chinese cinema. I have long admired Hong Kong movies (since the pre-handover glory days) as well as those from Taiwan, and have also long been skeptical of their counterparts coming from the mainland, which tend to be safer affairs, if not outright propaganda. I’ve bitterly watched the decline of the Hong Kong film industry since 1997 and have feared that the special magic once produced by the “Hollywood of the East” would be lost forever as even the handful of Hong Kong filmmakers who have remained at home have increasingly had to look to the PRC for co-production status. As Hong Kong becomes inexorably reabsorbed by the mainland (it will supposedly cease to function as a capitalist system in 2047), however, it seems as though China may end up becoming more like Hong Kong rather than the other way around. Johnnie To’s Drug War, the first of the director’s films to be shot entirely in the mainland and every bit the equal of his great Hong Kong productions, is one encouraging sign of this. Whatever happens, when people look back at 2013 decades from now, I wonder if any snapshot of our time in any medium will look as vital as Jia’s forward-looking masterpiece.
You can view the trailer for A Touch of Sin below: