As with all the arts, the history of cinema is a pattern of imitation, saturation, and reaction. Few films show this more clearly than 44-year-old Jia Zhangke’s incisive and ambitious, but uneven and somewhat superficial, A Touch of Sin. The film was nominated for the Palme D’Or and won the Best Screenplay award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The title, a reference to King Hu’s 1971 A Touch of Zen, if not to Orson Welles’ 1958 A Touch of Evil, is one of many cinematic references in the film that acknowledge continuity with the past. In this case, the past is China’s famous Fifth Generation filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine) and Zhang Yi Mou (Hero) who excelled at exotic romances and historic dramas about martial arts swordsmen and the unification of China.
Zhangke, on the other hand, is known for his documentaries or documentary style fictional features (Still Life, The World) that address current problems in China, and he has only recently emerged from underground status.
With A Touch of Sin, he might himself be accused of catering to a more mainstream international audience with his Quentin Tarantino style cartoon violence and interweaving multi-narrative structures favoured by Alejandro Inárritu (Babel) and Guillermo Arriaga (The Burning Plain). Still, there is no doubt about the courage of a filmmaker intent on exposing the social and environmental failures of a corrupt repressive Communist regime.
The first two segments involve violent loners that are with an intentional irony, throw backs to the martial arts heroes. In the more successful of the two, Jiang Wu plays Dahai, an angry miner from Jia Zhangke’s birthplace, the Shanxi province. Dahai is beyond being diplomatic as his genuine grievances against corrupt local officials are rebuffed.
His vociferous accusations frighten his fellow miners and embarrass the obsequious lowly officials. One friend tells him that he would have been a good general if he had been born in another era. When Dahai confronts the big boss he is beaten up by henchman.
Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Dahai sees that the law that he studied and legitimate channels of complaint are useless. He goes on a cathartic shooting rampage and becomes both that general and an outlaw.
In the third segment, which is based on two true stories, a sauna receptionist, Xiao Yu (Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao) gives her lover of many years an ultimatum before he departs on a high speed train that will soon be involved in a horrendous collision.
After visiting her mother who is washing vegetables at a huge, but empty, airport construction site, Xiao Yu returns to work and rejects the advances of two clients who mistake her for a masseuse. When they return with physical violence, she stabs one of the men to death. In the real life story, the sauna worker was sentenced for murder, but ultimately saved from any jail sentence by public outcry.
The final story stars a handsome young man (Luo Lansham) who leaves a factory job after being made to compensate the factory for an industrial accident. He lands a job at a plastic Las Vegas-styled night club in the depressing city of Dongguan where the boys and voluptuous young girls are made to dress up in kinky military outfits.
The boy falls in love with a sex-worker who is trapped in the job because she already has a child to support. This segment is based on a 2010 suicide epidemic at a factory called Foxconn. Apparently, the scandal has resulted in better salaries and improved working conditions.
Characterization, motivation and the fluidity of the narrative and story telling are all sacrificed to some extent by Jia’s eagerness to expose a litany of social ills as violently and shockingly as possible. Where the film succeeds is in painting a portrait of a country that is growing so rapidly and mercilessly, that it is imploding at the same time.
The countryside is barren and the cities inhumane and ugly, while greed, vice and corruption are everywhere. Jobs are not assured and no one is stable. The sauna worker hitchhikes around the province of Hubei; the man in the second segment is a migrant worker who seldom sees his family; the young man drifts from thankless job to thankless job and high speed trains transporting people across the huge country derail.
Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer