Through its sad, bleak stories, Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” shows anger and despair below a rapid social change China has been going through. While their society is certainly changing, the main characters in the movie hardly receive any benefit from that progress, and they are at the bottom of the harsh world where survival of the wealthiest is mercilessly applied on most people. Some of them inevitably explode with their anger in the end, but nothing is changed for them or others, and the wheels of their society keep turning on as before.
After the opening scene coupled with an unexpected violent moment, the movie begins its first story with Dahai(Jiang Wu), a rural coal miner with no bright future. The coal mine in his town is recently sold to a wealthy business man who was once his schoolmate, but it seems the head of the town and his few associates are only the ones receiving the benefit from that big deal, and Dahai has been pretty pissed about it.
That business man visits to the town on one day, and we get a dryly amusing sight of the town people welcoming him at the airport as if he were a high-ranking government official. Dahai tries to protest to him as soon as his old schoolmate gets off his private jet, but he is only reminded of how helpless he is in front of a man with money and influence. He is savagely beaten by several goons right on the spot, and he is paid for his injury later on the condition that he will keep his mouth shut.
After getting out of the hospital, Dahai visits her sister’s home, and then something clicks in his mind. As calmy observing how his impulsive decision is ultimately led to a very dark outcome, the movie strikes us with the series of shocking violence reminiscent of Takeshi Kitano’s films. This violent sequence is surely cringe-inducing, but it has a certain sense of futility further enhanced by its detached but meditative mood.
The second story is about another compelling case of violence. San Zhou(Wang Baoqiang) is a migrant worker who has been drifting around the country since he left his hometown and family, and we see him returning to his hometown for his aging mother’s birthday party. While welcomed by his other brothers, he also meets his wife and young son, but he does not know how to reconnect with them. It has been long years since their separation, and all he can do for them is giving them the money he earned.
He later gets a chance to spend some time with his young son during the evening full of firecracker noises around them. He casually shows his kid a gun he acquired from somewhere, and then he shoots toward the sky just for entertaining him. We already know this is not the first time he uses it, and what he eventually commits with this gun is presented in a tense, gut-chilling sequence at the end of his story.
After that, the movie changes its course and then places its focus on the hard life of Xiao Yu(Jia Zhanke’s wife Zhao Tao), a young woman who works as a receptionist at some massage/sauna shop in an urban area and is not very happy with her job and life. Her private relationship with a married guy has been a small consolation to her, but we can see that this guy will never leave his wife no matter how sincerely he talks to Xiao Yu.
Unfortunately, things get pretty bad for Xiao Yu. The relationship with her lover is shattered when his wife learns about that, and this furious woman cruelly punishes her with two guys who come along with her. While she is trying to recover from this hurtful moment, she comes across a couple of very rude customers, and that results in a brutal moment of violence bitterly followed by its irreversible aftermath.
The fourth story follows another young worker who is also not very fortunate. After an unlucky accident happened to his co-worker, Xiao Hui(Luo Lanshan) runs from his factory because his boss demands him to fill the injured guy’s place with no payment for him. He moves to the south region, and he quickly finds a new job at the place where wealthy middle-aged guys are entertained by young female employees every evening. During one scene, girls are marching in uniform in front of their clients, and they all are ready to be called after their show(each one is numbered on their uniform).
While getting comfortable with his new job, Xiao Hui begins to like one of these girls, but his innocent love is soon crushed when he realizes how jaded this nice girl actually is. To her or any other female employees, prostitution is an daily work they willingly put themselves into for earning money, and the scene involved with her latest client is handled with cold objectivity even though it looks a little funny due to their silly roleplaying(She plays a train attendant, and he plays the chairman to be, uh, served by her).
These four stories, which are partially inspired by recent real-life incidents in China, are barely connected with each other, but the director/writer Jia Zhangke, who received Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, lets us realize the common themes shared between them and muse on what they reflect. In any human society, injustice and inequality always generate anger and resentment inside their victims, and, as shown in the film, these desperate people are sometimes driven or pushed toward violence. They are left with far more misery and far less hope as a consequence, and we feel sad to see that there are not any other options in their despairing circumstance.
The movie demands you some patience for its slow pace, and some of its parts do not work well(its symbolic scene with a abused horse feels too obvious, for instance), but, like Jia’s previous films “Still Life”(2006) and “24 City”(2008), the movie is interesting to watch as a contemplative observation on the modern Chinese society which has been stuck in its contradictory state between communism and capitalism since its first step toward modernization and globalization. I am not as enthusiastic as other critics praising it, but I did not lose interest during my viewing, and I think it is a recommendable experience to talk and discuss about.
By the way, the title of the movie was inspired by Taiwanese martial arts film “A Touch of Zen”(1971). After his movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, Jia Zhangke was asked about what kind of sin the title of his movie refers to, and he replied, “It’s about how we tolerate injustice, the gap between the rich and the poor. More than anything I think silence is a sin.” As far as I can see from his films, he is certainly not silent about what he saw from his society as a voice of conscience, and I admire him for that.
In spite of its critical attitude, the movie was not banned by the Chinese government – and it was actually co-produced by a production company backed the government. I guess that is a small sign of change, though the movie has not yet gotten a full approval for domestic release.