Directors: Jia Zhangke
Writer: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan, Zhang Jia-Yi, Vivien Li Meng, Lu Liu
This was written for my Introduction to Chinese Law class in my Masters program, hence why it focuses more on Chinese law and society rather than the film itself.
It’s no surprise that Jia Zhangke’s 2013 wuxia-inspired drama A Touch of Sin had trouble getting past the government censors, for the film is a damning indictment of modern mainland Chinese society and government. It is a film that depicts the corruption of government officials and the simmering and building anger lingering beneath the stoic facades of the disenfranchised. The film follows four occasionally intertwining narratives, all of which are a harrowing reflection of life in China if you’re not part of its middle or upper class, prospering in a government-centric and increasingly capitalist society which has left in the dust the lower socioeconomic groups it had promised to serve and protect.
If the four stories told by Jia, who has made a career out of bringing dissident narratives of the marginalised to the big screen that the Chinese government would obviously rather not show, seem frighteningly realistic, it’s because they are real. Ripped from the headlines of newspapers and inspired by rumours floating around social media sites like Weibo, the film portrays the underbelly of Chinese society, depicting stories of extreme violence; of crime, prostitution and corruption. This has been explicitly acknowledged by Jia, who said in an interview with the New York Times that through the medium of film, the audience could gain a deeper emotional understanding of the incidents. In all of the stories chosen by Jia, the protagonist is a marginalized member of society who regains their agency by rebelling against the rich and powerful.
The film opens in the northern town of Shanxi, where a miner named Dahai starts a solo campaign against the corruption of village chief for selling collective property, namely the state-owned mine, and refusing to divide the profits amongst the local people. Shanxi is a poor town, with derelict buildings and no real escape route for its citizens. The town’s main source of income is through mining; their miners being a combination of migrant workers and local townspeople. Inspired by the story of Hu Wenhai, Dahai is idealistic and staunch in his belief that the local boss has wronged the people of Shanxi by not giving them a share in the profits from the selling of the mine. Unfortunately, his efforts are met with failure – the people of the town are resigned and compliant to the fact they have been robbed and exploited by their materialistic boss.
The juxtaposition between the wealth of local boss, representative of capitalist, contemporary China, (the private airplane and the Maserati) and the old, but culturally rich items of the town (the statue of Mao) drives home the power of corruption, and the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor. The poor seem to have two responses: to be defeated, like the local accountant who turns a blind eye to the missing money in the village’s books, and to fight against it, like Dahai. But neither outlook will bring a happy solution, A Touch of Sin says. Those who are defeated and possibly complicit in the corruption will remain disenfranchised but safe, and those who choose to fight it will have to risk their life in doing so. What Dahai resorts to, in his desperation at the inequality, is violence – a key element throughout the film. He takes his shotgun and goes on a murderous rampage, killing all those involved in the corruption. What Jia emphasizes is that there is no rule of law to fight for the poor, not when the enemy is the ultra-rich, capable of bribery and violence of their own to keep the poor quiet and complaint.
The second arc follows the nihilistic story of Zhou San, a murderous migrant worker who returns to his family in his home city of Chongqing. He’s met with a cold reception from his family, and it’s clear that his relationships with them are strained, if not already broken. He tells his mother that there is nothing rewarding in living in his hometown, but he takes pleasure in using guns, illegal under Chinese law. Although his motivations are not as clear-cut as the other characters the film follow, where there is a clear antagonistic character or force that drives the protagonist, the antagonist here seems to be Chinese society as a whole. Jia wants to ask: is Zhou San an inevitable result of modern, dog-eat-dog China – someone so disillusioned with their life and lack of opportunities that violence is their main form of release and communication? He eventually guns down and robs a woman of her money, because armed robbery is a far faster method of earning money rather than migrant work, a common path taken by the lower class who lack opportunities in their hometown. In Zhou San’s perspective, there is no benefit to traveling to a faraway province for work – the lack of better prospects will follow him wherever he goes. The status quo in Chinese society does not work, the film argues angrily, and the marginalized need to be given better opportunities and protection by the government.
The zenith of the film comes in the third story, which follows Xiao Yu, a woman who moves to another province when her affair with a married man ends badly after she provides him with an ultimatum to choose between her or his wife. Bringing together the characters of Dahai and Zhou San, Xiao Yu is both idealistic and a drifter. She travels to Hubei province in search for better prospects, and ends up working as a receptionist for a sauna. She is eventually attacked by local officials who refuse to acknowledge that she is not a prostitute. Like with the coal boss in Zhao San’s story, Jia uses objects to juxtapose the rich and the poor and to show the staggering disparity between the two classes. Where the coal boss had his luxury vehicles, Xiao Yu is literally beaten with money when she refuses to have sex with the local officials. Her attacker, slapping her with wads of bills, asks her “Isn’t my money good enough?” Reinforcing the importance of violence in the film, she regains her sense of agency and dignity through fatally stabbing the officials with the knife that her former lover gave her. In this vignette, the object of Jia’s criticism is focused on local officials, bringing forth the notion that it is not only the society and system in the bigger picture that is problematic, but the individuals at a local level need to be fixed as well.
The fourth story, set in the industrial province of Guangdong, introduces the audience to Xiao Hui, a young man who quits his factory job after he accidentally harms a coworker and has his wages taken from him to give to the injured coworker as compensation. He moves to Dongguan, a place known for its sex trade, and finds work at an upscale brothel masquerading as a hotel which serves rich businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan. After falling in love with a prostitute who he cannot be with, he becomes so alienated and disillusioned that he commits suicide, jumping off his residential building to his death. Again, here Jia critiques the notion of traveling to get better opportunities. In A Touch of Sin, your fate is the same no matter where you go, if you’re not a part of the Chinese prospering middle or upper class, whether you move to an industrial or rural city in search of better jobs and opportunities.
As mentioned throughout this essay, violence is a key device used by Jia in A Touch of Sin. In each story, the protagonists use violence to regain agency and to right the wrongs caused by the the people more powerful than them. Despite the differences in the identities, backgrounds and locations of each character, each of them use violence as a final act of rebellion – Dahai shoots the people that have wronged him with his double-barrel shotgun, Zhou San violently robs a woman by killing her for money, Xiao Yu murders her attackers in self-defence when they attempt to rape her, and Xiao Hui commits suicide by jumping off his building. In an interview with Asia Society, Jia stated that the characters are searching for:
“dignity in a society that is increasingly unequal, dignity in a place that appears to have left so many behind, and dignity in a country where without the rule of law to objectively handle society’s strains, violence is the only answer.”
In broader terms, violence is a symbol of the growing resentment of the disillusioned of modern Chinese society. This is what will happen when they are pushed too far, Jia warns, this will be the inevitable consequence when there is no rule of law to represent the downtrodden and the poor, and violence is the only recourse. Furthermore, this contravenes China’s ‘harmonious society’, a concept central to and promoted by the Chinese Communist Party in its attempt to develop the ‘Chinese dream’. The audience are purposefully placed to be on the side of the protagonists, even as they commit Tarantino-esque violence against their oppressors.
Interestingly, the problems identified by the film are only examined at a local level, and never in the big picture of the Chinese government – never does the film explicitly recognise the central government. On a meta level, this is because A Touch of Sin would never make it past government film censors had it explicitly critiqued the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party. Although there is critique of the corruption of local government officials, even that fell in line with the central government’s stance on anti-corruption. The acceptance of the film also revealed the power of influence of social media sites like Weibo in China. Jia, in an interview with NPR, stated that, “Weibo created a space for this movie to be accepted […] Because of Weibo, our understanding of the reality in Chinese society is very different from before, where there was more news censorship.”
A Touch of Sin ends with the protagonist from the third vignette, Xiao Yu, watching a performance of a traditional Chinese opera from afar. A character who has just committed a murder is asked, “Do you understand your sin?” The meaning of this ‘sin’ is twofold: both the life of the oppressed, left behind by the new China, and the violence that they will commit in search for dignity and agency. Jia argues, in the main tenet of the film, that this ‘sin’ is and will be inevitable for them, if Chinese society remains as it is, where corruption is rampant, the gap between the wealthy and the poor is staggeringly wide, and the lack of rule of law continually impedes the disenfranchised. Only if and when these problems are solved can Chinese society be truly harmonious.