It’s been a while since I last watched a Chinese language film, so this one got put on top of the usual list. Since I watch relatively few Chinese films, I’m not a good judge of them and in particular I’m not familiar with director Jia Zhangke’s body of work even though he appears to be highly regarded by international critics.
With these caveats in mind, I found a lot to like about A Touch of Sin. This film tells four separate stories, each of which is directly based on a recent real-life event. Each story involves a different set of characters in a different part of China ranging from rural Shanxi to urban Dongguan, known as the sex capital of China. What they all have in common is a deeply pessimistic view of modern life in China.
All of the characters here are the downtrodden masses who work in low-class, undesirable jobs: coal mines, saunas, factories etc. China’s economy may have grown by leaps and bounds and this new prosperity is easily visible in the film in the form of bustling cities, vast new infrastructure projects, traffic-clogged roads and gigantic factories. But for our protagonists this new wealth has passed them by.
Instead, the film suggests that to make it in this new world, one must be prepared to compromise one’s moral principles. Corrupt government officials who sell publicly owned assets get to buy private jets and Italian sports cars while the villagers who are supposed to collectively own the assets get nothing. To earn a decent living women must sell bodies and men must rob others. Those who persist in living according to the rules must make do with miserable standards of living, impossible pressures and be at the mercy of their bosses’ whims.
So far, this is nothing we haven’t seen before in a thousand other films. Where A Touch of Sin shines however is how its stylistic choices and the use of shocking, explosive violence when the pressures inevitably boil over evokes the China of an earlier, perhaps mythical, era. It seems to be saying despite all of the changes China has seen, underneath it all is still a feudal world in which might makes right and the violent protagonists we see here are just modern versions of wuxia heroes and rogues.
Unfortunately the film gets its message across with all the subtlety of a giant club. Every single line of dialogue serves only to reinforce the negativity. As a result, the characters themselves never seem quite real. It gets particularly irksome when references to horrible real-world events are inserted without regard to story needs. For example, the allusion to the Wenzhou train collision of 2011 feels contrived and goes nowhere.
Still, this is competent film-making with great cinematography, mostly good actors and a timely critique of China. This film isn’t quite banned in China but the official line seems to be to quietly ignore it and never let it be shown, so it amounts to about the same thing. That earns it extra points in my book. Veteran China-watchers may find nothing new here but Western audiences I think will be delighted with this view of the Middle Kingdom.