‘A Touch of Sin’ probes underbelly of modern China

‘A Touch of Sin,’ a Chinese underground film, makes a political statement, capturing four recent acts of violence in China. Photo courtesy of themilanoschool.org
‘A Touch of Sin,’ a Chinese underground film, makes a political statement, capturing four recent acts of violence in China. Photo courtesy of themilanoschool.org

Last Wednesday night, the Chinese underground film A Touch of Sin by director Jia Zhangke screened at Images Cinema. The drama, which was released in May 2013, won an award for best screenplay at Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Allen Carlson, visiting professor of political science from Cornell, and Sam Crane, political science professor, both of whom specialize in China, organized the screeening and led an introduction and subseqent discussion of the film.

The ingenuity behind this film is rooted not only in its meaningful and exhilarating aesthetic execution, but also in its ability to draw continuity between four seemingly independent and random acts of violence that occurred in China in the past decade. The true events dramatized in A Touch of Sin seemed vividly representative of some of the issues contributing to the rising social and spiritual malady that Jia maintains is striking contemporary China, such as government corruption, accelerated commercialization, social immobility and a culture founded on consumerism.

As Professor Carlson said, A Touch of Sin “illustrates the contradictions and tensions that are inherent in the later stages of Deng [Xiaoping’s] reforms and the challenges facing China’s new generation of leaders and its people. In an age where corruption appears to be endemic, where income gaps are increasingly obvious and where communication is no longer controlled by the state, how stable is the situation in China and where are things likely to go? It portrays the uncertainty, malaise and doubt but also possibility and energy in a way that I, and other political scientists, I think, cannot in such a powerful statement.”

The shocking, raw violence of the film – juxtaposed with images of natural beauty – justifies audiences and critics deeming director Jia Zhangke a “Chinese Tarantino.” The film eschews realism and borrows elements of wuxia, fantastical Chinese gongfu movies featuring martial artists known as knights. A Touch of Sin’s protagonists, driven to violence because of socially endemic injustices, are portrayed as such knights, brandishing pocketknives like swords and old rifles covered in cloth like flags. The film’s reverence for wuxia style, even marked by its English title’s resonance to the classic 1970’s wuxia movie A Touch of Zen by director Hu Jinquan, represents China as a fantastical place in which “knights” have no choice but to assume control of justice and their fates.

The transcendently artistic filmography captures the geographical majesty of China and the simultaneous bleakness that unfolds within its landscape. Due to censorship, a lack of originality typically dominates the Chinese movie industry. Yet, this reviewer felt A Touch of Sin was one of the only honest films she has ever seen about China. Every moment and move in this movie is intentional, symbolic and brilliantly shot.

The four narratives – based on cataclysmic true events – string together a diverse depiction of the struggling lower classes across wide geographic, developmental and social distances, from the southern industrial boom towns and manufacturing centers of Guangzhou and Dongguan to the isolated, rural villages in China’s western provinces. The vignettes originate in the real-life stories of vigilante Hu Wenhai’s 2001 gun rampage against 14 corrupt local party officials in Shanxi province, the notorious bank robber and gunman Zhou Kehua who was active between 2004 and 2012 in China’s southwest and Burma, the self-defensive murder committed by Deng Yujiao, a female victim of an attempted rape, and the deeply disturbing string of suicides in the past decade at the Foxconn factory, which manufactures all Apple, Dell, HP, Sony, Motorola, Nokia and Nintendo products in Guangzhou. The stories call into question the reality of the meritocratic “Chinese Dream” painted on propaganda posters all over China today. The film’s Chinese title, Tian Zhu Ding, means “predestined” or “fixed by heaven,” implying that China is a country in which people’s lot in life immovable and fixed.

The movie is rife with symbolism, irony and social commentary, from the sex workers in a nightclub dressed in barely-there Red Guard uniforms and dancing in a march-like rhythm, to the glimpse of a portrait of Jesus Christ in the back of a commercial truck passing by a saluting statue of Chairman Mao. While the stories themselves are statements about the political realities of China, the unnatural and uncomfortable placement of Chinese zodiac animals in each vignette, in a hijacking of their original cosmological symbolism, alludes to the spiritual realities of China.

In the film’s final and most poignant utilization of traditional culture, the camera turns to the faces of commoners gathered to watch an outdoor production of a Beijing Opera in the countryside. The opera’s lyric, “Do you know your sin?” is repeated. The film works both as a condemnation of the multifaceted societal forces that, Jia posits, are sustained by materialistic ambition and work to erode spiritual well-being and as an acquittal of the victims of modern China’s justice system. As Carlson remarked in his introduction, the potential existence of justice in modern China seems tenuous even as an abstract possibility, after one views this film’s concrete portrayal of four real-life individuals whose personal sense of justice was undervalued, unrecognized and condemned. Jia poses one potential response of China’s citizenry – namely, violence, against others or oneself. The question remains of which possible outlets for this stifled potential energy remain viable responses today – the Internet? Violent protest? Political activism? Transnational ties? A Touch of Sin forces the realization upon its audience that an outlet is necessary, whatever it may be.

“Jia is then very much exploring the dark side of the Chinese economic miracle, the rise of China on the global market place and its emergence as a world power, and considering the human cost of such gains and the impossible position in which it leaves many who are at its margins (geographically, economically and in terms of gender, etc,)” Carlson said.

While the existential want rife within a culture of excessive materialism may be a trait common to all first world nations or nations ascending to that status, now experiencing quick development, industrialization and commercialization, A Touch of Sin viscerally conveys firstly, that the possible universality of the spiritual want does not diminish its tragic element and, secondly, the extent to which existential needs are neglected in modern China, a country perhaps overwhelmed by progressive ideals.