Of course, the fact that China is also the world’s most populous nation (another truism) ought to be reason enough – the larger the workforce, the greater the yield, right? But how has this distinctly capitalist model sat so successfully with, or on top of, the country’s deep Communist roots?
For Western cinephiles, the films of Jia Zhangke have offered as good a way as any into the complexities of this question. His international reputation rests on his ability to deftly blend fiction and documentary realism in the same works, without misleading audiences or tipping into polemical territory. The humanistic and involving portraits of individual migrant workers that have so dominated his films post-2000 are always framed against the wider economic demands of a vast and restless country, where decades-old working communities are dispersed by the sale of a single factory, or family men and criminals alike are forced to become aliens in distant provinces merely to subsist, and provide for those left behind.
A Touch of Sin is being spoken of as a ‘departure’ for Zhangke, and that is indeed true, but his core concerns hold firm: we’re still following these despondent folks as they pick their way across his imposingly grey panoramas, finding work, returning to estranged family, or fleeing. Complex and open-ended as his films undoubtedly are, it seems that Zhangke’s answer to the question of how China came to dominate world industry may be deceptively simple: it is systematically depriving its people of a sense of home.
What sets A Touch of Sin apart from Zhangke’s other films is primarily its violence. Each one of the four stories told ends in death, and each of the deaths is depicted unflinchingly onscreen. Other than a little foreknowledge of the director and the expectation of a much more ‘genre’ outing than usual, I came to the film un-primed. The opening sequence – in which one of our four protagonists is held up by hoodlums and another is observing the scene of an upset van full of tomatoes – is a fantastic and stylish slice of deadpan arthouse thrill, and all the more surprising coming from a filmmaker with a history of such calmly contemplative observation.
This is the influence of ‘wuxia’ films, literally translated as “martial hero”, that Zhangke has acknowledged in A Touch of Sin’s publicity events; even the title is a pun on the 1971 Taiwanese wuxia epic A Touch of Zen. But it’s this sudden injection of a violent ‘style’ into his work that’s the true departure, not necessarily the violence itself. The disaffection, loneliness, poverty and labour that feature in many of Zhangke’s character portraits (factual and fictitious) are certainly motive enough to provoke an explosive reaction, but only in this film do the put-upon subjects break in such devastating and destructive ways. It’s the filmmaker’s response to increasing reports of violence across China: to come out of his cinematic comfort zone and depict the brutal effects of economic pressure by adopting elements of a much more populist style than his own.
For the most part, it works. There is even a slight but shocking black humour at play that serves the film especially well in the first section; the audience tittered as Dahai, having been savagely beaten and paid off by his corrupt boss’s goons, is distracted from kicking open a door in the process of his own killing spree. A Touch of Sin’s second half is also impressive in its staging of the sleazy, mood-lit ‘service’ industry of saunas and high-class brothels. Zhangke and his cinematographer Yu Likwai prove themselves equally adept at shooting these gaudy and soulless luxury interiors as their much more well-trodden grounds of industrial rubble and over-cramped urban housing.
The film has its flaws, of course. Some of the violent scenes are hampered by below-par CGI, and the screenplay, which won a prize at Cannes, felt a little telegraphed, expository and genre-bound at times. The second protagonist I had little time for, as his self-styled ‘outlaw’ status seemed to jar against Zhangke’s generally sympathetic presentations of China’s lost and suffering souls.
Luckily, however, his segment segued through a clever little misdirection into the film’s only female-centred story, which I found refreshing after an hour or so of wounded and brutal male dominance. Having said this, the wounding brutality at the hands of ‘powerful’ men continues in the story of sauna hostess Xiaoyu, lost and aging and held in stasis by the indecision of her married long-term lover. Here again the violence is at its most stylised, and although this isn’t quite Kill Bill, it certainly reminded me of the Office Kitano production credit I spotted at the film’s opening. While the film doesn’t strive to say anything particularly nuanced about women in the Chinese economy – its episodic framework can only allow for a certain depth of character, after all – it is notable that Xiaoyu is the only protagonist to report her own crime to the police.
A Touch of Sin is an ambitious piece that attempts to capture the economic pressures and potential for violence across the strata of Chinese society. There’s much more going on in the film than I could hope to cover here, but perhaps it works best when taken alongside Jia Zhangke’s post-2000 output. From this pool of impressive features and semi-documentaries it emerges as an uncharacteristically angry piece of work. That it was passed by the censors in its own country is strange, but heartening. It’s an irony that the concession to violence that influenced the film itself is also the factor that’s likely to make it more commercially viable in the West.
Words: David Hamilton-Smith