Unexpectedly & violently absurd

Dan Edwards: Jia Zhangke, A Touch Of Sin

Jiang Wu, A Touch of Sin

Jiang Wu, A Touch of Sin

Jiang Wu, A Touch of Sin

A Touch of Sin is absurd. Utterly absurd. Almost as absurd as the real-life Chinese events that inspired it. Adolescent prostitutes parade in titillating military uniforms, a middle-aged man shoots rich people to stop feeling bored and Communist cadres sell themselves state assets and buy Learjets with the proceeds. Underlying it all is a darkly surreal sensibility Buñuel would have been proud of. This episodic view of contemporary China from one of the nation’s most acclaimed auteurs may, at times, be grimly amusing, but it sure isn’t pretty.

“Over the past two years there has been an increasing number of violent incidents reported in China,” director Jia Zhangke explained during a recent visit to Australia to unveil his film at the Melbourne International Film Festival. “People are living under more and more pressure, but there are no proper channels through which they can solve their problems, so some people resort to violence.”

As he prepared a wuxia pian, or sword-fighting epic, set in ancient China, Jia watched the response to many of these violent contemporary events play out on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter). Reflecting on the ancient and modern worlds, Jia began to see some resemblance between the online calls for a more just and humane society and the righteous characters of the wuxia films made by directors like King Hu (A Touch of Zen, Dragon Gate Inn) in the 1960s and 70s. It was this train of thought, he says, that led to A Touch of Sin, which subtly references King Hu’s work in several of its stories.

Whatever the film’s thematic links with ancient tales of swordsmen and women, A Touch of Sin unfolds in a country that has been utterly transformed by its headlong rush into modernity. Comparing these images with Jia’s earliest works of the late 1990s, the streets look richer and the people much better dressed. The half-finished highways we saw in films like Unknown Pleasures (2002) are now complete, facilitating movement across the country’s vast expanses as characters follow the flow of transnational money and all the pleasures and corruptions it has to offer. Everything looks so much newer than it did 20 years ago, yet the sheen is all surface deep, masking a culture that gets darker with each passing film.

“In the 15 years from my debut, Xiao Wu (1997), to A Touch of Sin, Chinese society has changed a lot,” agrees Jia. “On the one hand the country is full of limitations. The class system, for example, is very fixed. The child of a factory worker originally from the countryside is very likely to grow up to also be an internal migrant worker. On the other hand, superficially the country seems very free and full of vitality. For example, you can enjoy all kinds of sexual services in a place like Dongguan, as you see in the film. So society has lost its balance. The people with power and money have all the freedom, and even the law cannot bind them.”

Zhao Tao, A Touch of Sin

Zhao Tao, A Touch of Sin

Zhao Tao, A Touch of Sin

It’s this sense of lawlessness and a society out of control that makes A Touch of Sin such a harrowing experience. Jia has always been concerned with those lost in the slipstream of China’s breakneck speed development, but earlier characters like the pickpocket of his debut, Xiao Wu, were passive types, rendered torpid by the scale of the changes around them. In this sense, A Touch of Sin is a major change of direction. These men and women don’t just stare in incomprehension—they shoot, stab, steal and rob with abandon. Yet Jia’s new protagonists show no more understanding of the world around them than his earlier, more lovable losers like Xiao Wu. It’s as if having made the leap to action, Jia’s characters are determined to see every last urge to its conclusion, no matter how cruel or inane.

“I wanted to use cinema to talk about these violent events,” says Jia of his motivation for the uncharacteristic brutality. “Only when we understand and face violence can we avoid these things happening in daily life.”

For all its confrontational content, however, A Touch of Sin could do more to explore the roots of the discontent we see on screen. While we are made to viscerally feel the consequences of such an unbalanced society, several of the stories lack any serious attempt to explain the wider forces that have created these situations. Possibly this is the result of the central difficulty faced by every director working in China today. “In general there is a lot of space for the media to report on violent incidents,” Jia states. “So I felt that cinema should have the same kind of space. But the film system in China is very ‘special.’ I think the film should pass the censors, but on the other hand I don’t know how those people in the censorship bodies think.”

A Touch of Sin is slated for release in mainland China this November, but it remains to be seen if it experiences any last minute problems. It will also be fascinating to watch the local response. Several random attacks this year have made the film appear disturbingly prescient; the horrific story in August of a six-year-old boy having his eyes gouged out, allegedly by his aunt, makes even Jia’s explosive violence look comparatively tame.

Given the scale of the societal problems facing China, it is perhaps unsurprising A Touch of Sin offers no answers to the malaise it depicts. Like the experience of China itself, the film simultaneously conveys contradictory feelings of sensory overload, frantic activity, and the overwhelming sense of inertia that comes when events seem so out of control. In the end, Jia’s film simply leaves us reeling and, in the final few moments, gazing back into the lens to ask why.

A Touch of Sin; writer, director Jia Zhangke, producer Shozo Ichiyama, People’s Republic of China, 2013; 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival, 25 July-11 Aug

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 14

© Daniel Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 October 2013