Is it possible to make a film containing both a serious examination of a country’s social and political injustices, and highly stylised flashes of violence of the badass variety? Sort of Quentin Tarantino meets Ken Loach, if you’ll pardon the rough analogy… Such is the challenge Chinese writer/director and long-time festival favourite Jia Zhangke sets himself in his 7th feature, A Touch of Sin. A challenge which marks a change of direction for him but which, in my opinion, he meets with plenty of flair.
Violence is at the heart of the film’s four episodes, each based on a real-life event and centred on a different character. The first chapter, the most darkly humorous of the lot, tells of the growing frustration of Dahai (impeccably portrayed by Jiang Wu). This grouchy middle-aged diabetic living in a coal mining village is the only one speaking out against the corruption of the village officials (everyone else is either too scared or being bribed). The village chief sold the previously state-owned coalmine but has failed to live up to his promise of sharing profits with the workers. To make things worse, one protest too many earns Dahai a sharp shock to the head courtesy of the local boss’ crony and a shovel… The scene is set for Dahai the ticking time-bomb to explode, the climax of this first story being a particularly brutal highlight.
Tale number 2 is mellower, the protagonist San’er (Wang Baoqiang) is a cold-blooded, expressionless robber returning to his home village for his mother’s 70th birthday. He is hard to empathise with, but the point here is the suffocating boredom of the small-town atmosphere he has left behind, abandoning his wife and his young son – who clearly will be left with the same numbingly bleak life choices as his father. Violence as an extreme consequence of discontentment and lack of opportunities.
The third story is another tale of retribution, in which Xiaoyu (played by Jia’s wife and muse Zhao Tao) has a lonely existence as a receptionist in a sex-sauna. In another viscerally violent piece of masterly filmmaking, she is forced into self-defence when she is assaulted by a particularly odious customer thinking he can have anything by, literally, slapping a large wad of cash around. The resulting scene is surreal, deliberately obscene and yet captivating.
The closing episode explores yet another form of oppressive violence, showing us the tribulations of teenage migrant worker Xiaohui (Luo Lanshan) as he wanders through various jobs, in factories and in a high-class sex club. There, he falls in love with one of the sex workers (Li Meng) only to become depressed at the lack of control he has over his own destiny when he realises things are more difficult than they seem.
Despite similarities across the four stories (all characters have limited control over their fates and are backed into a corner until they feel violence is the only way out), when viewed together as one cohesive whole they deliver a multi-faceted investigation of the roots of violence, always set in a larger social context. For example, the depressing nomadic existence of the young worker in the 4th story hits the point home for us that such a life was San’er’s only alternative in story 2, and indeed the kind of future which awaits his son too. It is this context which elevates A Touch of Sin beyond a run-of-the-mill action film, giving an honest, intelligent portrait of contemporary China as Jia sees it: a fragmented land where most people have to uproot and leave behind families in search of better chances of prosperity. A land left populated by arrogant nouveau riche, willingly passive citizens, abusive officials, corruption, clientelism, an exploitative sex industry, the alienation of many people on the edges of society and loss of individual rights.
The success of this patchwork justifies why Spielberg’s Cannes jury awarded Jia the Best Screenplay award last year although the dialogue is sparse – a screenplay is not just about words but structure too. But Jia is also in control of all the audio-visual elements at his disposal. The choreographed fluidity of the steadicam; the slow-paced editing and long takes imparting even greater power to the bursts of violence; the surprisingly effective Chinese Opera score; the recurring motif of animals throughout the film… This is a director at the top of his game.
Challenge accomplished for Jia then. The balancing act he has pulled off is a real feat because he compromises neither of his two initial reasons for making the film. We’re served a hefty dose of cinematic flourish inspired by the 1960s martial arts classics of King Hu and John Woo’s gun-play movies. Equally, Jia remains true to his social conscience as an artist and to his affinity with the have-nots in the widening rich-poor divide (it still hasn’t been released in China where media have been banned from even mentioning it, a reminder of just what a feat it is making such a movie under an effectively totalitarian regime). These two parts each complement the other, the final result creating a film capable of thrilling, enraging and stimulating plenty of food for thought.
A Touch of Sin (Chinese title Tian zhu ding translates as ‘Fated by heaven’):
Dir: Jia Zhangke