Some might feel that Jia Zhang-ke’s new film has a whiff of the ersatz about it. There’s the title, for a start: alluringly spicy, echoing King Hu’s A Touch of Zen, it could hardly feel more like a sales agent’s marketing ploy (the original title Tian Zhuding simply means “Ill-Fated”). But then fakery is partly what the film is about. The opening credits run over a trompe l’oeil backdrop of jungle leaves, the meaning of which only becomes clear much later when we notice that it’s the wallpaper pattern in a sauna-cum-brothel. So: fakery and illusion, and the sense of a world in which everything is for sale.
A Touch of Sin is mischievous, narratively involving, and hugely entertaining—although some critics in Cannes this year felt that its broader strokes made it considerably inferior to the slow-burning Jia films that we’re used to, such as The World (04) and Still Life (06). But how did the director ever get away with making a film that so openly bemoans the condition of capitalist China as a hotbed of corruption and a seedbed for despair? Well, as Tony Rayns points out in his recent Film Comment piece on the director, Jia has long experience of adroitly working the system to his advantage.
But a Jia Zhang-ke film featuring a gun rampage, knife-wielding action, and CGI snakes? Why not? A Touch of Sin is Jia’s most commercial proposition to date, but that doesn’t mean it feels compromised or inauthentic. Violence apart, it fits in a familiar and fashionable international mold, the portmanteau narrative of linked fates. That may be a somewhat discredited subgenre since Iñarritu’s pious Babel and Clint Eastwood’s spiritually bogus Hereafter, but there’s still life in the format, which after all has been in practice at least since La Ronde.
Jia’s four geographically diverse stories are all based on real-life incidents. The first is set in a coal mining community in northern China’s Shanxi province; an angry loner tries to denounce local corruption, which has destroyed the community while leaving one entrepreneur monstrously rich and powerful. When orthodox methods fail him, the would-be whistleblower instead picks up his gun. In the second story, set around Chongqing, a homicidal drifter returns home between bouts of killing. The third chapter is about a long-suffering woman finally pushed into violence by a nasty confrontation at the sauna where she works as a receptionist. And the fourth follows a young man who leaves his factory job to work as a greeter at an upmarket brothel in Dongguan. A brief, bitter coda—returning to the small-town setting of episode one—closes the circle.
Structurally, the film feels a little undershaped, and its sections might have been ordered more effectively; the first and third come on like gangbusters, while the fourth seems over-long and a little sluggish by comparison. But they’re woven together loosely (some might say arbitrarily), with elegance and lightness. The film begins with the drifter character Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) on his motorbike on a mountain road, where he’s accosted by three thugs. He responds by shooting them dead. He then rides past the site of a traffic accident, where a man lies dead and a pile of apples spills out on the road. A man in a greatcoat, Hu Dahai (Jiang Wu), picks up an apple and bites into it—before a sudden explosion in the background. There are references later to the explosion and to Zhou’s killings, and similar echoes run throughout the film: blood spills uncontainably on surfaces, like the apples, and there’s a similar episode of heavies accosting travelers only to get their violent comeuppance. Jia also threads in a series of animal leitmotifs—snakes, cattle, a monkey, a horrifically beaten horse—that, however they relate to the iconography of the Chinese zodiac, generally suggest a world in which humans are treated like beasts.
The first episode is the most contained, and the most politically direct. Hu Dahai is furious that a local official has sold the state-owned mine to an entrepreneur, bilking the population out of promised dividends. Jiao Shengli, the now obscenely rich tycoon, has his own private jet, and his hirelings bribe locals (a sack of flour each!) to come to the airfield and greet him and his wife like homecoming deities. It’s at the airfield that Dahai, denied the chance to denounce Jiao through official channels, confronts him openly—only to be beaten up by the man’s minions, who then toss him a sweetening wad of money in hospital. That’s when Dahai picks up his rifle—wrapped in a cloth emblazoned with a roaring tiger—and mounts a bloodbath à la Travis Bickle.
If we understand Dahai perfectly well, Zhou San’s motivation is more enigmatic, although it’s suggested that community breakdown has resulted in the release of dangerous, drifting “free radicals” like this taciturn gun-lover. When Zhou moves on, he briefly rides the same bus as a middle-aged man who meets up at a café with his mistress Zheng Xiaoyu (played by the director’s wife and muse Zhao Tao). The couple’s affair has reached its make-or-break point, but she ends up staying behind while he takes a train elsewhere and goes back to her work as receptionist in the Nightcomer Sauna. After a traumatic encounter with her lover’s wife, she’s accosted by some bumptious clients demanding sex, which isn’t in her job description. In a nightmarish protracted scene, one of the men slaps her repeatedly with a bundle of banknotes, declaring over and over: “I have money! I have money!” Xiaoyu finally erupts, whipping out a knife and slashing the punters to death. She does this in a way, holding the dagger with knife-fighter’s poise, that suddenly turns her into the avenging heroine of a wuxia film, with camera moves (by Jia’s regular DP Yu Likwai) and switchblade editing to match. When she walks off blood-soaked into the night, a CGI snake slithers across her path, to delirious effect.
For some viewers, this sequence and Hu Dahai’s gun rampage strike distinctly false notes, as if Jia had lost his dramatic compass, or were perhaps yielding to influence from Japanese co-financiers Office Kitano. In fact, it makes perfect dramatic sense that these sequences should be so stylized. The sense of crisis, of traumatic panic, in these characters’ lives is such that they briefly perceive the world as if they were figures in a nightmarish action movie: they become avengers in a generic movie way, living out their acts as a sort of hyper-intensified cinematic experience,
After all, cinematic fakery is what many people in this film’s new China seem to want. Businessman Jiao and his wife are deeply invested in their PR image as glamorous movie-star types, while the “Golden Age” brothel where errant factory hand Xiaohui works—and falls for wistful hooker Lianrong—is a lurid dream factory. A sort of miniature of the simulacra-filled theme park in Jia’s The World, and just as hermetic in its enclosure, the “Golden Age” specializes in Sino-kitsch fantasy numbers for wealthy johns, like a parade of girls in Red Guard costumes.
All four stories end desperately, although the coda arguably gives one main player a shot at a better future. Jia may paint a grim picture of a corrupt, soul-crushing society, but his satirical mischief makes for a redeeming thrust. A Touch of Sin no more offers a prescription for a better China—and why should it?—than Taxi Driver could be said to set out a workable proposal for urban renewal in mid-Seventies Manhattan. But it’s a bracing and unexpected offering from a director we thought we knew.