A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding) (Jia Zhangke – China/Japan) 133 minutes
If one were to name the most important filmmaker alive today, you’d be hard pushed to look beyond Jia Zhangke. Few directors worldwide are so consistently brilliant and the handful that are rarely provide such an in-depth auscultation of their own society in their work as the 43-year-old Chinese does. Even Iranian directors such as Jafar Panahi and Mohamad Roussolof, both great filmmakers deprived of their freedom because of their work, lack the world-historical angle of Jia Zhangke’s films. Jia is, with China’s exponential growth and breakneck development, living in interesting times. And he has the field largely to himself – China, despite its size and increasing economic growth, has relatively few directors who have made an impact on an international scale. Other Sixth Generation directors such as Wang Bing, Lou Ye, Zhang Yuan, Quan’an Wang and Zou Peng have made a name for themselves on the festival circuit but remain relatively marginal. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige’s obliquely political films of the 80s and 90s have given way to their own compromises with power. Jia may not be either ineffably mainstream – even in China – nor exceptionally dissident but his films are accessible to popular audiences and he is a chronicler of turbulent social change to rival Dickens, Balzac or Döblin. His work is also possessed of a startling beauty and narrative grace – in a visual, emotional and intellectual sense, his films are big hitters. There is probably no filmmaker alive as complete.
His latest film A Touch of Sin has seen him push the envelope a bit further, portraying violence, corruption, delinquency and discontent in contemporary China, of the sort that usually needs to be expressed in more sublimated ways. The official Chinese reaction has been one of disapproval though the Communist Party has sought not to ban the film but to immobilise it, instructing media not to report on it. Even such a relatively sophisticated means of censure is destined to fail with word of mouth, digital reproduction and the film’s international renown sufficient to earn it a notoriety in the PRC.
The film begins with two briefly interlocking incidents in Jia’s native Shanxi province that will later branch off into two strands of narrative among the four separate episodes, each of which Jia drew from real-life incidents. A bored-looking middle-aged man sits astride a motorcycle beside an overturned lorryload of tomatoes. Not far away, a younger man on another motorcycle is cornered by three young opportunistic hoodlums. The first man, Dahai (Jiang Wu), has just returned to his home village and is appalled at how the chief of the village – a former classmate of his – has enriched himself by selling the local mine off for privatisation. Dahai threatens to denounce the chief to authorities in Beijing but is roughed up by hoodlums and then offered wads of cash to remain silent. The second, San Zhou (Wang Baoqiang) is a shady drifter, who lives far from his young family but who cares enough for them to send them substantial amounts of money and to visit them in Chongqing for Chinese New Year. Wang looks like a menacing version of Joseph Gordon Levitt and he is the malignant force in the film, telling his wife that he is summoning up devils rather than gods when he waves three cigarettes, incense-style, around their house.
Both Dahai and San Zhou are malcontents, each in their own way. The heroine of the third episode meanwhile, Yu Xiao (Jia's wife Zhao Tao) is simply unhappy, a hostess in a massage parlour who is taken advantage of by the married man she has been having a long-time affair with. One day, she decides to say no, refusing to join him on a business trip to Guangdong, and things happen. The fourth and final episode centres on Hui Xiao (Luo Lanshan), a young man from Hunan. After causing the injury of a colleague in an industrial accident and being forced to work off the man’s loss of earnings, he bunks off down the country to Dongguan, where he gets a job in a luxury resort and falls in love with one of the prostitutes working there.
All four episodes are elliptical and self-contained with only brief links to each other. The motivations of each character are sometimes vague and the instances of violence – there is a different one in each episode – are mounted with cool, forensic distance, which makes them all the more unsettling when they happen. A Touch of Sin, like Jia’s previous films, most notably Still Life and 24 City, has an amorphous ontological quality to it. Its scenes and characters shift and reshape themselves in the memory long after the film ends. It also closes with a short, oblique epilogue which has a blackly comic echo of David Lynch or Michael Haneke. The Chinese title is idiomatic and means ‘Divine Destiny’, and is referenced in passing in each of the four episodes, which suggests the episodes are driven by fate rather than social forces; this too, you suspect, is playfulness on Jia’s part as there are too many veiled allusions to contemporary China – the beating meted out to Dahai is very similar to the Chinese police's beating of Ai Weiwei in 2009, a local bigwig and his wife make you think of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai, another couple is killed in Chongqing – the city Bo ran till he was toppled – while a Taiwanese-owned factory in the fourth episode is an explicit reference to Foxxconn.
I’m not sure if A Touch of Sin is Jia’s masterpiece or whether he is simply playing formal games with his audience but it is a compelling film that leaves you continually looking for clues (there are also references to animal signs of the Chinese zodiac throughout) and wondering if what you have seen has deeper underlying meanings or is simply an enactment of a society on the brink of cracking. It spans the sort of Chinese human interest stories that populate the sidebars of online news sites and also the industrial discontent that is rather less reported. A Touch of Sin is an intriguing film that will leave you wanting to watch it again to get more from it. The fact that it has clearly bothered China’s rulers makes it all the more valuable a work.