As a budding China watcher, I am surprised that I have not seen more of Jia Zhangke’s work. As a budding China watcher, I am also unsurprised that the Communist Party censored his 2013 film A Touch of Sin. Honored with the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, the film justifiably attracts both government condemnation and critical adulation as a elegantly crafted container for the social ailments plaguing today’s People’s Republic.
Jia never shies from controversy, and I am thus mystified at how I did not discover him earlier, given my personal interest in issues perturbing the Chinese government. Among other things, his repertoire includes 2006’s Still Life, which explores a town dying before the controversial Three Gorges Dam, as well as a short titled “Black Breakfast”, included in a film anthology commemorating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ 60th anniversary. However, Jia is a realist rather than an activist. Politics are no doubt present in his work, but only as necessary components for accurately depicting modern China’s rapidly evolving landscape. Simplicity and truth are Jia’s prerogatives; his style and narratives are usually quite minimalistic. Local color also factors in heavily: Jia’s works often focus on and deploy the dialect of Shanxi, his home province and what could best be described as China’s West Virginia for its hardscrabble coal mining reputation.
Accordingly, A Touch of Sin was either the best or worst way I could’ve introduced myself to Jia’s films. At least from their synopses, his other pieces appear to focus more narrowly on particular issues and be lighter on action. A Touch of Sin is far more ambitious: drawing from the wuxia martial arts film genre, it deploys gratuitous violence across four partially distinct narratives, each of which highlight different shadows lurking under China’s modernization. The film’s scope shocks and awes—not enough, I hope, to prevent me from enjoying Jia’s other works.
Consistent with Jia’s penchant for realistic, populist stories, the four narratives in A Touch of Sin are based roughly on actual events. First there’s the story of Hu Dahai (Wu Jiang), an anti-corruption vigilante modeled after Hu Wenhai, a Shanxi man who murdered 14 people, including local party officials, in 2001. Next there’s Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), a robber who bears likeness to Zhou Kehua, a Sichuanese criminal active from 2004 to 2012. Then comes Zheng Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao), a massage parlor receptionist inspired by Deng Yujiao, who gained attention in 2009 for violently rebuffing a local official’s aggressive sexual advances. Finally, we meet a young man from Hubei (Luo Lanshan) who ends up working in a Taiwanese-run electronics factory, and anyone who’s read enough about Foxconn can probably guess the man’s fate.
Mixed in with all this are shootings, beatings, brawls, and horse-whippings. Indeed, Chinese superstition’s fear of four (“four” and “death” are rough homonyms across most Chinese dialects) fits poetically with how the film has four narratives. A Touch of Sin is replete with death: of corrupt officials, factory workers, dreams, innocence, friendship, love. Despite rapid GDP growth, life in modern China is oftentimes stark and brutal, and Jia would like you to remember that.
Overall, A Touch of Sin paints an amazingly complex portrait of modern China’s social milieu. The film is ripe for analysis, and allegory, whether intentionally or not, abounds. Jia manages to address or hint at an astounding panoply of issues: Dongguan’s thriving sex trade, corrupt officials’ preference for Audis, high speed rail safety, the prevalence of mistresses, money-worship, and mass migration’s isolation. Technique-wise, the film is solid, but the depth and breadth of its social commentary is what elevates it to a masterpiece.
For those who watch China, A Touch of Sin is paradise. For those who don’t, it is a brutally beautiful portal into the darkness of 1.3 billion souls.
A Touch of Sin (Chinese: 天注定)—China. Directed by Jia Zhangke. First released May 2013. Running time 2hrs 23min. Starring Wu Jiang, Wang Baoqiang, Zhao Tao, and Luo Lanshan.