It’s remarkable what a little context can do. My initial impressions about A Touch of Sin were generally positive but also ambivalent. I wasn’t sure of what to make of the four loosely connected vignettes, each a mix of righteous anger and violence. If I were from Mainland China, it would be readily apparent, but all I could discern initially was the film’s larger commentary on the plight of the lower class and how desperation moves people to violence.
The film clicked when I heard about two of its driving principles. First, each of the four vignettes in A Touch of Sin is based on a true story that made headlines across Mainland China. Second, though this is not a kung fu film, director Jia Zhangke was loosely inspired by the wuxia genre when approaching this material. (Look for our interview with Zhangke and actress Zhao Tao next week).
Suddenly the film’s larger vision and tragic ironies became apparent, as did its ballsiness as a work of social criticism.
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A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding | 天注定)
Director: Jia Zhangke
Release Date: October 4th, 2013 (New York); October 11th, 2013 (LA)
In retrospect, the wuxia allusions are pretty apparent. The protagonists of the four vignettes are struggling against larger forces and they carry themselves like the chivalric heroes of old. Three of them, at least, strike poses or achieve gaits that put me in mind of wandering swordsmen. The irony is their social position (these are all everyday working class people elevated to the level of martial folk hero), the kind of violence that occurs (there’s no spiritual or philosophical sense of refinement as there would be to the martial arts, this is simply violence as a desperate lashing out), and the emptiness of the violence they enact (there’s a sense that nothing will come of the violence).
The references begin in the opening scene following a striking image of an overturned tomato truck. A man on a scooter drives an empty freeway — a massive extension under construction is visible in the distance — and is accosted by teenage bandits wielding hatchets. Axe-wielding baddies have appeared in plenty of kung fu films from Chang Cheh’s Boxer from Shantung to Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle. He dispatches of them quickly and then rides on. There’s nothing glorious about what just happened as there would be in a wuxia film, it’s just violence, and he continues on his way.
In the opening vignette, we watch a worker played by Jiang Wu struggle with political corruption at a local level. Next we get acquainted with the man on the scooter (Wang Baoqiang) who took out the teens with hatchets. Then comes a woman who works in a sauna (Tao) who’s pushed to extremes partly because of an affair. The last vignette involves a young man (first-time actor Luo Lanshan) trying to make it in different demoralizing workplaces. Even before knowing these were all based on true stories, I could recognize the non-fiction elements in the final vignette. Part of it centers around an electronics factory/worker dorm not unlike Foxconn; the other portion of that vignette centers on a brothel where teenage girls give themselves to businessmen. It’s difficult not to notice the sharp bitterness in the connection.
I sensed a few sources of tension throughout A Touch of Sin that underline these ironies and allusions. The violence is so brutal and so ugly, and yet most of the film is based on these artfully paced characters studies with delicate, emotional moments within them. The film is also so beautifully shot, with several images that keep cycling back through my head even days after I’ve seen the movie. A Touch of Sin is the kind of film where you watch a man’s jaw get blown off with a shotgun in graphic detail, but you also experience the quiet desperation of the man who pulled the trigger. There’s also a scene where the silent, awkward reticence as a man reunites with his family implies so much about the entire nature of their relationship. All of this is against the backdrop of modern China, rapidly changing, always leaving people behind, the country in the process of trying to catch up to its own ambitions as an economic super power.
One of the most memorable images that highlights the differences between the haves and have-nots involves a New Year’s fireworks display. Across the water where skyscrapers light up the night, the skies are illuminated by a lush pyrotechnics display. In a lowland, working-class area opposite the skyscrapers, a father amuses his son with the closest available equivalent: he fires his pistol into the air. Since the point of view of the film is that of the working class, I couldn’t help but read an us vs. them moment in this act, which wasn’t just to make the man’s kid happy but to punctuate a kind of thesis statement for the violence in the film: Them, they have industry and so many other tools to degrade and to dehumanize; us, all we have left is violence.
But violence is a limited kind of power given how it’s manifested in the film. I mentioned above that it seems like nothing can come of violence in and of itself, and it may have something to do with the way these vignettes end. There may be a sense of narrative closure, but not a sense of closure when it comes to affecting actual change. What happens after an act of murder to feed a family other than a cycle of murder out of necessity? Or say political violence when it’s just one man and his gun? Violence may not be the answer, but it’s the only option. In A Touch of Sin, and by extension China itself, violence is the manifestation of a larger social frustration, the voice of the alienated oppressed cast into steel, the only means of making a statement even when the statement will be negated and the speaker silenced once the authorities come into play.
So if not violence, what is the answer to all these social woes? This is the frustrating thing about art as social criticism. It can offer a mirror and hint at possibilities, but there’s no requirement to propose actual, workable solutions. But maybe that’s the proper way to go about it since any simple proclamations on how to solve the ills of a quickly developing nation would be insulting and naive.
Jia offers an interesting closing note for A Touch of Sin, suggesting that these stories are not just ripped from the headlines but are touchstones to the concerns of older tales. And these older tales are a reflection of history which itself cycles into the concerns of modern people. There’s an interrelation between different narratives, mirrors down a hall, all points to reconsider what’s gone before and what’s to come. Maybe there’s a leveling principle at work in art, not just art that’s also a form of social criticism, or at least a space of sympathy and understanding. Maybe underlying all these acts of human degradation and woe there’s a whispered acknowledgement: “There but for the grace of the global economy go I.”
A Touch of Sin opens in China next month. Somehow the film made it past cultural censors mostly intact despite its harsh, despairing criticism of modern Mainland China. I’m curious about how it will be received, and also what, if anything, the viewers will be able to do with what they’re shown. Like the freeway and the airport being built in the film, the future is uncertain and a work in progress.