Viewed chronologically, Jia Zhang-ke’s features make the effects of China’s gradual transition from communism to capitalism exponentially more apparent. In 2000’s Platform, this seismic shift can be gleaned mainly from altered décor and the retitled theatrical troupe at the film’s core, trading a hyperbolically Maoist name for an equally absurd one that plays up commercial prospects. By the time of 2006’s Still Life, however, a combination of statist authority and private greed operated on such a scale that entire cities are marked for submergence as part of the Three Gorges Dam project. A Touch of Sin emerges fully at the other side of this generations-long change, wherein communism exists only as a hollow front, enduring mainly in the working class primed to accept whatever abuse authority figures heap on them.
Purportedly based on real-life events, A Touch of Sin unfolds as four loosely connected stories best united by their shared sense of Chinese society at a moral crossroads. Nearly all of the main characters get screwed over one way or another: Dahai (Jiang Wu) castigates the collusion between the chief of his mining town and the owner of the mine, receiving for his troubles at first indifference and eventually a beating; Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao), a receptionist at a massage parlor, is accosted by a rich patron who so believes his wealth can buy him anything that he literally slaps the resistant woman with cash to subdue her; factory worker Xiaohui (Luo Lanshan) accidentally distracts a co-worker into slicing his hand, for which his boss will garnish 100% of Xiaohui’s wages to pay the injured employee instead of paying extra benefits. Only the nakedly psychotic Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), a roving thief and killer whose great ambition in life is to move to Burma where he can buy more powerful weapons, avoids submitting to any higher authority.
Zhou’s violence opens the film with a swift dispatch of three roadside bandits who picked the wrong mark, but his own wanton sprees contrast with the reactive violence of the other characters. Dahai, played with juvenile bluster by Jiang, initially seems benign, sticking up for the villagers screwed out of the shared wealth the private company promised them when they bought out the mine from public holding. But after the tycoon’s henchman viciously beats him on a tarmac, Dahai digs a shotgun out of his closet and goes on a rampage that immediately crosses the line from ignited protest to petty revenge. Xiaoyu’s own bloodletting, considerably more justifiable as self-defense, is less shocking, but her subsequent roving in bloodstained clothes, occasionally matched to earlier shots of her wandering streets and hitching rides after being dumped by her married lover, manages to further remove an already isolated woman from the world around her. And as the young, lovelorn, harassed Xiaohui demonstrates, not all violence is outwardly directed.
Set against these characters and their turbulent personal and social struggles, Zhou sticks out like a sore thumb, but he’s the crux of the film, its very own Monsieur Verdoux among characters still able to rationalize their extreme reactions. Zhou, who barely even pays lip service to a family he encourages to leave him, nonetheless sends his wife and child the money he takes off of corpses, an act one senses assuaged his feelings of guilt long ago but are now a rote exercise in a job he performs simply out of habit. Xiaohui’s self-loathing, Dahai’s perverted indignation, and Xiaoyu’s righteous self-defense all find their endpoint in Zhou, who clarifies the other stories not as laments for the system’s oppression of these individuals, but for the way individuals who strike back against a corrosive system are nonetheless inculcated in its worst attributes and can only respond in kind.
True to Jia’s intimate focus but suggestive style, A Touch of Sin relegates the context for its savagery to the margins. Workers who toil around the leads regularly make note of how they must work in provinces far away from their spouses and look forward to the New Year’s holiday just so they can go to their true homes for a few days. Other digressions are more pointed, as in an overheard conversation about a local woman who made so little as a factory worker that she turned to prostitution to get by, only to contract HIV. Jia found inspiration from the film from accessing uncensored news report via China’s social networking site Weibo, a potential avenue for connection borne out in a scene of Xiaohui and a new co-worker reading about news pertaining to the opening narrative before the film teases the passivity such interactions can foster when Xiaohui and Lianrong simply post “WTF” under each news item. Jia’s films have always been observant, not instructive, and A Touch of Sin’s most defining image is the one that closes out the first arc, that of a previously abused horse trotting free from the master Dahai murdered. As with the characters, the horse, no longer whipped, but still yoked to a cart, has lost its most immediate oppressor, but is nowhere near free.
When I saw this film at a public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, the picture occasionally looked blurry and soft, but Kino’s disc clarifies that as an issue of projection, as A Touch of Sin arrives with a crisp transfer that showcases sharp digital images at every turn. Colors are well-balanced, be it in the drab first half or the sleeker urban palettes of the last two stories. The slightly higher frame rate of Chinese cameras lends some of the more jolting movements a faintly lingering quality that makes the violence that much more disturbing. The audio track is similarly impressive, mostly using its five-channel surround sound to aurally stretch the borders of the frame and treating the occasional blasts of gunfire like the jolting notes of the Surprise Symphony.
Only a batch of trailers advertising some of Kino’s other recent releases.
Jia Zhang-ke’s ripped-from-the-headlines tetraptych offers a haunting look at a system in which late capitalism and its provoked responses are equally terrifying and consumptive.