A Touch of Sin (Film)

A Touch of Sin

Director: Jia Zhangke

Year: 2013

Country: China

Is it possible to make a film containing both a serious examination of a country’s social and political injustices, and highly stylised flashes of violence? Sort of Quentin Tarantino meets Ken Loach, if you’ll pardon the rough analogy… Such is the challenge Chinese writer/director and long-time festival favourite Jia Zhangke sets himself in his 7th feature, A Touch of Sin (this English title is a clear nod to A Touch of Zen while the Chinese title Tian zhu ding translates to ‘Fated by heaven’). A challenge which marks a change of direction for him but which, in my opinion, he meets and fulfills with a huge amount of flair.

Violence is at the heart of the film’s four episodes, each based on a real-life event and centred on a different character. The first chapter, the most darkly humorous of the lot, tells of the growing frustration of Dahai (impeccably portrayed by Jiang Wu, brother of actor-director Jiang Wen). This grouchy middle-aged diabetic living in a coal-mining village is the only one speaking out against the corruption of the village officials (everyone else is either too scared or being bribed). The village chief sold the previously state-owned mine but has failed to live up to his promise of sharing profits with the workers. To make things worse, one protest too many earns Dahai a sharp shock to the head courtesy of the local boss’ crony and a shovel. The scene is set for Dahai the ticking time-bomb to explode…

Tale number 2 is mellower, the protagonist San’er (Wang Baoqiang) is a cold-blooded, expressionless robber returning to his home village for his mother’s 70th birthday. He is hard to empathise with, but the point here is the suffocating boredom of the small-town atmosphere he has left behind, abandoning his wife and his young son – who clearly will be left with the same numbingly bleak life choices as his father. Violence as an extreme consequence of discontentment and lack of opportunities.

The third story is another tale of retribution, in which Xiaoyu (played by Jia’s wife and muse Zhao Tao) has a lonely existence as a receptionist in a sex-sauna. In another viscerally violent piece of masterly filmmaking, she is forced into self-defence when assaulted by a particularly odious customer thinking he can have anything by, literally, slapping a large wad of cash around. The resulting scene is surreal, deliberately obscene and captivating.

The closing episode explores yet another form of oppressive violence, showing us the tribulations of teenage migrant worker Xiaohui (Luo Lanshan) as he wanders through various jobs, in factories and in a high-class sex club. There, he falls in love with one of the sex workers (Li Meng) only to become depressed at the lack of control he has over his own destiny when he realises things are more difficult than they seem.

Despite similarities across the four stories (all characters have limited control over their fates and are backed into a corner until they feel violence is the only way out), when viewed together as one cohesive whole they deliver a multi-faceted investigation of the roots of violence, always set in a larger social context. For example, the depressing nomadic existence of the young worker in the 4th story hits the point home for us that such a life was San’er’s only alternative in story 2, and indeed the kind of future which awaits his son too. It is this context which elevates A Touch of Sin beyond a run-of-the-mill action film, giving an honest, intelligent portrait of contemporary China as Jia sees it: a fragmented land where most people have to uproot and leave behind families in search of better chances of prosperity. A land left populated by arrogant nouveau riche, willingly passive citizens, abusive officials, corruption, clientelism, an exploitative sex industry, the alienation of many people on the edges of society and the loss of individual rights.

The coherence of this patchwork justifies why Spielberg’s Cannes jury awarded Jia the Best Screenplay award last year although the dialogue is sparse – a screenplay is not just about words but structure too. But Jia is also in control of all the audio-visual elements at his disposal. The choreographed fluidity of the steadicam; the slow-paced editing and long takes imparting even greater power to the bursts of violence when they come; the surprisingly effective Chinese Opera score; the recurring motif of animals throughout the film… This is a director at the top of his game.

Challenge accomplished for Jia then. The balancing act he has pulled off is a real feat because he compromises neither of his two initial reasons for making the film. We’re served a hefty dose of cinematic flourish inspired by the 1960s martial arts classics of King Hu and John Woo’s gun-play movies. Equally, Jia remains true to his social conscience as an artist and to his affinity with the have-nots in the widening rich-poor divide (it still hasn’t been released in China where media have been banned from even mentioning it, a reminder of just what a feat it is making such a movie under an effectively totalitarian regime). These two parts each complement the other, the final result creating a film capable of thrilling, enraging and stimulating plenty of food for thought.

(See comments section below for some further analysis of the film!)

13 thoughts on “A Touch of Sin (Film)

  1. Maybe you could have elaborated more on symbolism of animals in the film. I found it interesting but nobody payed too much attention to it. I wonder if Zhangke gave his opinion on the subject or he just left it to audience to make their own conclusions?

    1. Thanks for your comment and for your question!

      It’s a very interesting question. In all 4 stories there are different animals that pop up into the story. Off the top of my head, I remember a horse and a tiger (on the garment the character Dahai wears) in the first story, some ox being transported in a truck in the 2nd story, snakes in the 3rd story, birds in the 4th story. I am sure there are many others too which I cannot remember now.

      A lot of this symbolism is used by Jia to make his political point, the most obvious one is probably the horse in the first story. The horse is first seen getting viciously beaten by an almost sadist owner with Dahai just walking past, and then later on, after Dahai’s killing spree when he sees the owner once again beating his horse and shoots him. This poor, beaten old horse can represent both Dahai who has had enough of being exploited and refuses to take more ‘beatings’. But also the horse in Chinese art has often been a symbol of the country itself, a proud strong horse, galloping fast towards a bright future. For example, one of the most famous Chinese paintings is this one by Xu Beihong:

      This is an image that almost all Chinese people will know, so iconic did it become. In this painting however, the horse representing China and where China is headed is strong, powerful, graceful… the one in Touch of Sin is the exact opposite, and only Dahai’s rage can stop it having to take any more shit. Jia says so much about how he sees China today with irony and simple economy, all through this horse.

      For the other animals, it is important to know that this film (A Touch of Sin) is really making references to other famous Chinese fictions: one is another film (A Touch of Zen), the other is a classic set of stories written maybe 800 years ago (Water Margin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_Margin). This set of stories is a huge influence on Touch of Sin, because it’s a collection of stories about outlaws and rebels who use violence against corrupt leaders in power, almost like Robin Hood figures. In China these stories are known by all, and everyone would get Jia’s references (although I must say here that the film has not been released in China). For example the tiger which Dahai wears is a reference to one famous outlaw from the Water Margin stories, and in these stories every outlaw has some animal connected to them or representing them.

      In story 3, the snake I think is a reference to the film A Touch of Zen, where in that film too there is a female character who seeks revenge and uses a knife.

      Also besides reference to these 2 classic Chinese cultural texts, I think the oxen trapped in the truck transporting them in story number 2 also has some obvious symbolism. The animals are trapped and being moved around, in transit, which is a reflection of all the human characters too. The constant migrations that Chinese people have to make because a few urban areas have all the jobs and money, while so many other areas are poor, have left the modern population without roots. They are trapped by the circumstances around them which they can do nothing about. Also of course, the ox also makes a kind of rhyme with the Chicago Bulls cap San’er is wearing! But that leads us to another set of motifs in Touch of Sin: the many references to Western culture and globalisation having an impact on China even, however much it likes to pretend otherwise. There are just as many examples of these as there are of animals, but that’s another story.

  2. A very informative reply. I will, at some point, get around to watching this film. When I do I will certainly look out for the references you make above.


  3. Excellent review and an even more fascinating comment on the theme of animals! I’ll have to check out the Water Margins stories for further detail. In many ways I wonder if this film would get a pass from most critics if they were more aware of the background to the animal symbolism. The images of abuse of the horse and oxen are the strongest and most evocative symbols in the film (also the hardest ones witness as a viewer), summing up the nation and its people succinctly, as you point out in your comment.

    I find that a lot of reviewers in the US and UK tend to scoff as such on-the-nose symbolism in cinema, especially in films concerned with social commentary. But this film’s bluntness (that Chicago Bulls beanie REALLY underlines the point) is such a strength when paired with Jia Zhangke’s tremendous stylistic control, as you point out in your review. I wasn’t convinced that this was a deserving winner of best screenplay at Cannes but you make a very compelling argument for it – the film is structurally flawless and that is certainly more important than any flashy dialog.

  4. Thanks for the comment, much appreciated!
    Interesting comments about the symbolism and the bluntness, and I totally agree that it’s the strength of the movie, it is passionate and raw. But as you say Jia is still in total control, as he always is in his films, of even the smallest details, and it’s usually the case that it’s the background details that really enrich his films and they are always there to add maximum meaning to a shot or scene. Another obvious example just off the top of my head is the statue of Mao in the first episode.

    As for the Bulls beanie, absolutely it’s on the nose, and it echoes with that character’s association with that animal too. But also in another way it’s perfect because Chicago Bulls is the kind of logo that would have been ubiquitous in the West 20 years ago, during the Michael Jordan era. Might be reading a bit much into it, but it does feel like this is also a small statement about how far behind such a character from provincial China may be, and despite the unstoppable advances of globalisation there’s still a delay. It’s the kind of small pop culture reference Jia has always done well.

    Another thing about the structure is how the four stories are ordered so that each one’s geographical setting is gradually heading southwards, starting from the hinterlands of the Shanxi province and ending in the bustling metropolises of the South. It exactly mirrors the kind of trajectory so many millions of migrant workers, from rural China, travel within the country to search for better prospects. We see this nomadic rootlessness in the latter 3 characters particularly, and it’s a central theme of Chinese history going back through the ages, and no less so in modern history, i.e. the millions of youths sent to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution or obviously all the countless internal migrants leaving home and losing ‘roots’. So the structure itself speaks about that issue too. It really is an excellently crafted movie, on top of all its passion!

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