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A Touch of Sin

Director Jia Zhangke's latest dystopian and bitter vision of everyday China

05·04·2014

A Touch of Sin

Director Jia Zhangke's latest dystopian and bitter vision of everyday China

05·04·2014

Violence happens all the time in cinema. Whether Optimus Prime is mutilating the robotic innards of Decepticons with his bare fists, or Alfred Hitchcock is having Janet Leigh dismembered off screen in a shower, violence adds easily-understood and entertaining tension to cinema. What better way to resolve a conflict or begin the narrative tension that keeps us locked to our seats for two hours. As such, cinematic violence becomes a frequently-used narrative technique in the director’s arsenal, particularly an affirmation of agency. In other words, cinematic violence represents the assertion of intent to control, whether over a person or a situation.

Violence is so prevalent in modern cinema that we sometimes even forget to acknowledge its existence. In Jia Zhangke’s latest film A Touch of Sin, violence is the ultimate and final manifestation of causality; it makes a frighteningly psychological and clear socioeconomic portrait of the masses.

A Touch of Sin is one of a series in Jia’s recurring dystopian and bitter visions of everyday China. Broken into four story arcs, Sin chronicles the descent of four unrelated characters into a pit of desperation as they deal with recurring themes of corruption, vice, and bureaucracy. While these characters seem to share very little in terms of identity, socioeconomic background or even geographic location, they all ultimately resort to violence as a final act of desperation: a miner (Jiang Wu), an exploited young man (Wang Baoqiang), a receptionist, (Zhao Tao) and a migrant worker (Luo Lanshan). Despite being spread out across China, their growing resentment and disillusionment with modern Chinese society seems not only to be a rejection of “the Chinese dream” but also a frightening insight into the spiraling morale of China’s desperate and downtrodden. As such, it was cleared for release in China in December but since debuting at the Cannes film festival, the film’s mainland release has languished in bureaucratic limbo.

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Still of Xiaoyu (top), Dahai (middle), and Xiaohui (bottom) playing out their separate stories

Dahai (miner): Chief, when you sold off the coal mine you promised yearly dividends.
Cūnzhǎng, cūnlǐ méikuàng chéngbāo gěi cáituán de shíhòu, shuōhǎole měinián dōuyǒu fènhóng de.
村长,村里煤矿承包给财团的时候,说好了每年都有分红的。

Village chief: Let’s talk about it in private.
Sīxià shuō bɑ.
私下说吧。

Dahai: If you don’t talk to me, I will make sure you talk to the Central Discipline Inspection Commission of the CPC.
Nǐ bù gēn wǒ shuō, dào shíhòu jiù gēn zhōngjìwěi de rén shuō.
你不跟我说,到时候就跟中纪委的人说。

It is the use of ultra-violent Tarantino-esque brutality that ultimately sets this film apart from Jia’s previous work. Blood spurts in gouts and fountains; there’s murder by shotgun, axe, kitchen knife, and hammer. Each of the protagonists of the film finally resorts to violence in order to cope with the hopelessness of their respective situations, stemming from their oppressive backgrounds and poverty.

Two men: Are you afraid we don’t pay you?
Pà wǒmen méi qián?
怕我们没钱?

Xiaoyu (receptionist): I’m not a whore, go home and sleep with your wives.
Wǒ búshì xiǎojiě, huíjiā zhǎo nǐ lǎopó qù.
我不是小姐,回家找你老婆去。

[One man slings a bunch of RMB on Xiaoyu’s face]

Man: Isn’t my money good enough? It’s not good enough?
Lǎozi yǒu qián! Lǎozi yǒu qián!
老子有钱!老子有钱!

The miner hopelessly looking to extract promised payment from corrupt local officials, the abused receptionist looking for a way out, the migrant worker searching for another job, and the exploited young man all show a repression in modern Chinese society.

Xiaohui (exploited young man): Are there many guests?
Wǎnshàng kèrén duō ma?
晚上客人多吗?

A prostitute: On and off, one lot arrives at one a.m. Another lot at three. And another lot at five…It’s snowing in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia.
Bù hǎo shuō, língchén yì diǎn yī bō, sān diǎn yī bō, wǔ diǎnzhōng háiyǒu yī bō ne …… Shānxī hé Nèiméng dōu xiàxuě le.
不好说,凌晨一点一拨,三点一拨,五点钟还有一拨呢……山西和内蒙都下雪了。

Xiaohui: It can’t be. Here in Dongguan, it’s still 24 degrees.
Bú huì bɑ, Dōngguǎn hái èrshísì dù ne.
不会吧,东莞还24度呢。

While it seems nearly every character in Sin displays a remarkable propensity for violence, Jia is clear to establish a normal level of brutality, whereupon each protagonist is chronicled descending into abnormally violent tendencies, correlating with their rising frustration and anger. The opening sequence of the movie sees Wang Baoqiang coming under ambush from a group of men. Under any other circumstance, this might be a scene from Mad Max—a post-apocalyptic highway robbery by axe. In fact, this is modern China. Without flinching, he dispatches them coldly and efficiently with a pistol.

Wife: I got two remittances, 130,000 RMB altogether.
Shōudào guò liǎng bǐ qián, yīgòng shísān wàn.
收到过两笔钱,一共十三万。

San’r (migrant worker turned robber): That’s right.
Nà jiù duì le.
那就对了。

Wife: I don’t want your money.
Wǒ búyào nǐ de qián.
我不要你的钱。

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Wang Baoqiang (right) portraying a migrant worker turned thief in A Touch of Sin

A Touch of Sin is brutal, coldly angry and calculated in exacting violence, the one thing its everyday protagonists are able to do to establish their ability for agency in the face of an overwhelmingly ignorant system. Sin appears to be a brutally dystopian vision of how helplessly China’s trampled working class continues to bear the brunt of a system that is increasingly ignorant of their needs. What’s even sadder is that these visions are far from dystopian fantasies: many are simple reality. One only has to put an ear to the ground to hear the stories of suicide and murder in the Chinese countryside in order to understand the dynamics Jia aims to portray. Sin, then, is not only a work of fiction and violence, but a voice and face for those who used their last ounce of agency to show us the absurdity of the modern condition.

                                              Director and Writer: Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯)

Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke is a critically-acclaimed and internationally-renowned director,considered one of the leading filmmakers in the Sixth Generation of Chinese cinema. Jia’s films often critically tackle themes of contemporary Chinese history, socioeconomic disparity, and daily life in modern China. His film Still Life (《三峡好人》), about two people in search of long-lost spouses, set against the life-changing opening of the Three Gorges Dam, won a Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival. Jia’s style is characterized as postmodern, containing a lack of extradiegetic music, extreme long distance shots, and colorful minimalism.