A Touch of Sin

February 8, 2014
Actor Wu Jiang stars in the film 'A Touch of Sin' (2013)
Actor Wu Jiang stars in the film 'A Touch of Sin' (2013)

For this week’s second film I’m going to depart from the mainstream and discuss Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin, screening throughout February at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. To give a first viewing to important movies that have yet to find a distributor in this country is one of ACMI’s most vital functions, and A Touch of Sin has the makings of a contemporary classic.

Where Mandela tells the story of one giant-sized personality and his impact on history, Jia examines the lives of four ordinary people in China who are driven to extremes. It may sound humdrum but the cinematography by Yu Lik-Wai is nothing short of spectacular. The characters are based on true stories that Jia found in the newspapers. He has fictionalised each tale, adding scenes that create tenuous links between segments.

Jiang Wu plays Dahai, a man in a remote community in Shangxi province, who cannot accept the wholesale robbery that has turned the village boss into a multi-millionaire. While his neighbours hasten to pay homage to the self-styled plutocrat, Dahai – like Ai Weiwei – is the odd man out.

In the other stories, Wang Baoqiang plays Zhou San, an itinerant worker who finds that life at home in Chongqing is simply too boring. What isn’t boring is firing guns and playing the outlaw.

Zhou Tao, who has appeared in almost all Jia’s films, is Xiao Yu, a receptionist at a massage parlour in Hubei who fights off a drunken customer and has her life turned upside down. Newcomer, Luo Lanshan, plays Xiao Hui, a restless young man who goes from one job to the next in the southern town of Dongguan, clocking up grievances and finding each new role to be just as meaningless.

Such bald summaries convey none of the subtleties of these stories, which use a patchwork of tiny details to convey the psychological complexities of each character, and their own peculiar forms of damage. They are case studies in Jia’s indictment of contemporary China – where old habits and conventions have been swept aside with extraordinary speed, and a new materialism installed as the engine of everyday life.

In the new China, Deng Xiaoping admitted, some will get rich before others. Thirty years later we can see that some Chinese got rich, while many millions have remained impoverished, dreaming of the weath that has eluded them. The new conditions create new frustrations, feelings of powerlessness and despair.

For those without opportunities to better their lives violence is a last resort. This is a common thread in these stories, whether the characters act on the side of justice or crime, whether they defend themselves or inflict self-harm. Jia’s title is a homage to A Touch of Zen (1971), a famous Taiwanese martial arts film by King Hu. The idea is that martial arts movies often have a hidden political agenda, as the hero strikes out violently against the forces of injustice.

Jia’s characters play this role in their own small way but they are not rebelling against a corrupt tyrant who may be fought and conquered. Their enemy is an entire population focused on self-advancement while barely scraping together the necessities for survival. It is a nation of obsessive workers who amount to nothing more than cogs in a vast machine. Increasingly, it is a world which reserves its rewards for those who are bold and ruthless enough to trample on others. It’s a portrait of a system in which millions of small sins combine to eat away the soul of a society.

A Touch of Sin
China, rated MA 15+
133 mins
Written & directed by Jia Zhang-ke; starring Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao, Wang Baoqiang, Luo Lanshan
For screening times: http://www.acmi.net.au/lp_touch_sin.aspx

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 8 February, 2014.

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