A scene from “A Touch of Sin”
For the longest time I have believed that the greatest filmmakers produce works that are both quintessential expressions of their national idiom and universal statements about the human condition. Satyajit Ray’s India, Akira Kurosawa’s Japan, and Ousmane Sembene’s Senegal spring to mind but so does the John Ford western.
With the arrival of Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” at the Lincoln Plaza and IFC in New York yesterday, the third film I have seen by the Chinese director who has kept a sharp focus on social inequality throughout his career, it is reassuring that a new golden age of cinema might be returning with Jia at the helm. His work is distinctly Chinese without the slightest concession to perceived “cross-over” marketing dictates, but universal in its compassion for working people. It is both puzzling and reassuring to see that this film could have been in made in censorious China today even if it benefits to a large degree from Japanese co-production. If China’s Communist Party has succumbed to the “one percent” values that are being protested everywhere in the world, it is noteworthy that a writer/director like Jia still adheres to the egalitarian ethos that motivated hundreds of millions of peasants and workers to rise up against a heartless and unjust order in the mid-20th century.
“A Touch of Sin” is a four-part narrative based on real-life outbursts of violence in China, all touched off by bitter class resentments.
- A middle-aged coalminer returns to a village where he once worked in order to file a complaint against the Communist Party official who used his connections to become the owner of a privatized mine. The new boss comes to work in a Maserati while the villagers have never received a penny for the benefits they were promised when the mine became private property. When the miner approaches the boss in the midst of a welcoming procession as he steps off his private jet with his complaint, a bodyguard attacks him with a shovel after the boss leaves him in the lurch. The boss’s cronies begin mocking him as Mr. Golf after he leaves the hospital, finding the idea that his head was used as a golf ball a big joke. This and other offenses lead to the miner taking his revenge.
- A young man who makes his living as an armed robber still adheres to traditional values, sending his grandmother money on a regular basis even if it is ill-gained.
- A young woman has been forced by rural poverty to take a job as a receptionist at a sauna that serves as a front for a brothel. When a local thug insist that she give him a “massage”, she turns him away saying that she is only a receptionist. When he begins beating her, she defends her honor in the only manner left to her—through violence.
- Another young man is working in one of China’s typical sweatshops. When a co-worker asks to borrow his smart phone to look something up, a conversation about how to use it leads to the borrower accidentally cutting his hand on a machine. The young man is told by his boss that it his responsibility to pay for the man’s lost wages during his two-week sick leave. His response is to leave the job and search ever more desperately for a way to survive in an economy where a lack of skills and connections turn you into a virtual slave.
Unlike China’s costume dramas that are geared to the international market replete with CGI trick shots of swordsmen floating through the air, “A Touch of Sin” is brutally realistic, shot on location in some of China’s most ugly industrial centers. Despite this, Jia, the consummate visual poet, turns every shot into something that will stick with you long after the film has ended. It is as if Antonioni decided to make films in places like Buffalo or Pittsburgh in the mid 1950s.
Despite the grim character of the tales, there is a dark comedy that pervades throughout. Like many of the class-conscious directors in China today, Jia loves to orchestrate dialog between family members or co-workers that bring out their saltiness and quick wit. If you are looking for dialog that advances what the critics call character development, you won’t find it in “A Touch of Sin”. In a way, there is no need for it. The miner does not have to explain what sets him on his homicidal path.
While watching “A Touch of Sin”, I made a mental note to say something about the naturalism that is found among all directors who belong to the “Sixth Generation”, a post-90s school of filmmaking in China that is strongly influenced by Italian neo-realism. The naturalism is not just an expression of life as it is really lived but also a throwback to the philosophy embodied in the novels of Emile Zola or Theodore Dreiser, even if the “Sixth Generation” has never read widely in this genre.
In the typical naturalist fiction, the main character is like a moth trapped in a spider’s web made up of capitalist society’s economic forces of coercion. The novel ends badly (not so much tragically since there was never a fall from on high) but inevitably just as is the case for millions of workers or poor farmers in China today with its miracle economy.
In the press notes, Jia describes his intention:
This film is about four deaths, four incidents which actually happened in China in recent years: three murders and one suicide. These incidents are well-known to people throughout China. They happened in Shanxi, Chongqing, Hubei and Guangdong – that is, from the north to the south, spanning much of the country.
I wanted to use these news reports to build a comprehensive portrait of life in contemporary China. China is still changing rapidly, in a way that makes the country look more prosperous than before. But many people face personal crises because of the uneven spread of wealth across the country and the vast disparities between the rich and the poor. Individual people can be stripped of their dignity at any time. Violence is increasing. It’s clear that resorting to violence is the quickest and most direct way that the weak can try to restore their lost dignity.
“A Touch of Sin” is opening throughout the United States over the next few months. Check http://www.atouchofsin.com/see.html to see if it is showing locally. I also recommend Jia Zhangke’s 2008 narrative film “Still Life” (http://louisproyect.org/2008/01/17/still-life/) and 2009 documentary “24 City” (http://louisproyect.org/2009/05/30/24-city/), both of which are class-conscious indictments of inequality in China. I have also heard that “The World”, a 2004 indictment of consumerism, is prime Jia Zhangke. All are available as DVD’s from Netflix.