Touch of Sin, A: Jia Zhang-ke’s Bleak Chinese Film

One of 2013 best foreign-language films

a_touch_of_sin_posterJia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin marks a point of departure for the highly-acclaimed Chinese director whose previous work (such as “The World,” in 2004) has been honored in various film festivals.

World-premiering at the 2013 Cannes Film Fest (in competition) “A Touch of Sin” also played at the Toronto Film Fest and was featured in the N.Y. Film Fest.

Review of Jia’s Venice Fest winner: The World

Still Life

Due to their critical nature, Zia’s films were not supported (to say the least) by the Chinese authorities. Thus, remarkably, the new film is a co-production of Jia’s Xstream Pictures and the Shanghai Film Group, marking it as the first studio film in Jia’s otherwise independent career.

Inspired by a series of recent instances of violence in China, well covered by the news media, A Touch of Sin is divided into four chapter, each dealing with an atrocious act of violence.  The end result is a scorching portrait of contemporary China as a radically evolving technological society, with all the strengths, weakness, and ills that come with it.

a_touch_of_sin_5Though Zia does not identify with title cards or other means the particular settings of his tales, his aim is to show that violence permeates every region and every facet of Chinese society.  Moreover, his observations about his own country bear resonance and are relevant to the increasing violence in other countries.

Made on a larger scale and taking its time (duration of the saga is 133 minutes), A Touch of Sin continues Zia’s trend of combining effectively conventions of fictional (Dong; I Wish I Knew) and narrative cinema (Still Life; 24 City).

a_touch_of_sin_4The violence is manifest in the desperate, often sudden and irrational, use of various weapons: guns, knives, explosions. What unifies the quartet of tales other than their general theme is the nature of their protagonists, who are largely working-class laborers. For one reason or another, they are fuelled by anger and driven to violent crime by different sources.

The four characters which drive the narrative are a disgruntled miner rallying against his superiors, an immigrant rebelling against the upper class, a receptionist driven to violence against her spa’s clients, and a worker broken down by a series of manual jobs.

These individuals, from various parts of the country, are meant to stand in for Chinese society at large. They and their incidents reflect broader problems faced by the underprivileged, based on their belief that resorting to violence is the quickest and most direct way to restore their lost dignity.

a_touch_of_sin_3Each segment builds slowly, often without dialogue, to a violent climax (or anti-climax), depending on your point of view.

Not all the segments are equally compelling.  The second one is too slow and less involving, compared to the first and third, in which Jia’s own wife, Zhao Tao, is cast as an abused spa receptionist who turns vigilante, when she takes justice into her own hands.

“Do you understand your sin?” a performer asks her audience (namely, we the viewers) in the last sequence, raising the issue of vigilante violence into more personal and philosophical levels.

a_touch_of_sin_1A Touch of Sin paints a despairing picture of a country that is ravaged by escalating socio-economic conditions, in which exploited individuals are pushed to the limit of engaging in desperate acts of rage and tragic destruction of themselves and others.

Bleak vision informs this tale of disenfranchised citizens.  Bitter, angry, and brutal, A Touch of Sin is a powerful exploration of violence, greed, and corruption in contemporary China, a society that is rapidly becoming sharply and rigidly stratified along social class lines.