In one of the central scenes in Jia Zhangke’s new film, a young man working in the southern Chinese manufacturing city of Dongguan goes to an ATM and finds that he’s broke. He’s just spent the past month betraying his friends and hopping from job to job, including one as a tuxedoed servant in a brothel where he watched the woman he loves perform for clients. Standing in a daze in front of the bank, he gets a call from his mother, who harasses him for money and then berates him for having none. We see the man’s lips quiver and tears well up as he realizes that he has no one he can trust or love, no family, and no friends. A few hours later, he jumps out of the window of the huge housing block for migrant workers where he has been staying, and falls to his death.
This sort of honesty is so rare in Chinese films today that it’s shocking to see it in a mainstream production. A Touch of Sin isn’t likely to be a commercial success—indeed, it’s still hasn’t been released in China—but Jia does not consider himself a dissident filmmaker and there is talk that it may be released in China. (The film has already won the 2013 Cannes Film Festival award for best screenplay and is now showing in limited release in the United States.)
The film is made up of four interlocking stories that are meant to encompass the geographic sweep of China, and what Jia sees as the epidemic of violence and amorality in modern Chinese life. All the stories are about members of China’s working classes, victims of social change who end up as violent desperados—modern-day knights trying to avenge large-scale wrongs. Interwoven are other themes that few other Chinese directors would touch: the destruction of traditions and religions, for example, or cruelty toward animals. It’s one of the few films out of China in recent years with ambition—and made by someone with enough talent to pull it off.
The film is consciously made in the wuxia martial arts genre; the English title is an homage to the 1971 film A Touch of Zen by the Taiwanese director King Hu, which stars a reluctant fighter named Ku. (The Chinese title of Jia’s film, Tianzhuding, means “doomed by fate.”) Like Ku and other classic martial arts heroes, the characters in A Touch of Sin mostly choose violence as a last resort. Jia also uses other wuxia techniques like compressed time sequences and stylized violent scenes.
But the film’s structure and plot owe more to traditional storytelling, showing particular affinities to the Water Margin, a Ming-dynasty classic novel that tells of outlaws who are bound by honor and brotherhood. Like the various episodes recounted in the Water Margin, the stories around which the film are based are true, but the work as a whole is fiction. Jia has said he wants to explain the violence by going more deeply into the characters’ personal lives than the bare facts of their cases allow. This is one of the film’s strengths; we are made to see in these portraits some of the hollowness behind China’s material prosperity. Especially noticeable are the lack of warm relations between people, something Chinese call renqing and which they prize as an essential part of Chinese culture. Like the character standing in front of the ATM, these are people whose material progress has come at the expense of stable, strong human bonds.
Another major inspiration for the film is China’s growing social media culture, such as Sina’s Weibo, a Twitter-like form of microblogging that has become a major source of information for many Chinese. With over 500 million registered users, Weibo is a popular platform for discussion of everything from movie stars to social problems, such as pollution or income inequality. In recent months, however, the government has been cracking down on people accused of spreading rumors and Weibo has been less lively than in past years.
In a discussion this fall at The Asia Society in New York, Jia explained that through Weibo, people have come to realize that phenomena that they thought were local—corrupt officials, ecological destruction, shady business operations designed to enrich a few—are actually widespread. “The presence of Weibo has changed the way we understand China,” Jia said. “Before Weibo, people tended to think these incidents were made up or were isolated. But after Weibo, and every other day you’ll see something like this happening in China.”
Several of the stories Jia has chosen to tell in A Touch of Sin are well-known in China because of Weibo, such as the local official who beat a woman with wads of cash, insisting she sleep with him, finally provoking her to attack him with a knife. The film also draws on recent cases of suicides and gun rampages, hired assassins and slashers.
Much of the time, Jia’s approach is effective, especially in the film’s first and fourth stories. Both are layered and ambiguous. In the first, a villager becomes unhinged after a mafia-style elite backed by the local party boss take over the local coal mine, which had been collectively owned. The villager is on a crusade to end a gross injustice, and his story is emblematic of how state firms are often looted by a small elite who get fabulously wealthy. But he is not rational. He walks around the village announcing to everyone that he is going to report the local party leadership to highers-up in Beijing but never figures out how to do this; at one point he walks into a post office and tries to send an unaddressed letter to the central government. Humiliated, he eventually takes matters into his own hands.
Not all of the film is equally successful. Part of the problem is the characters’ continual—and often very quick—recourse to violence, a pathology that Jia seems to be using to draw broader conclusions about where Chinese society is headed. Despite the frequency of such incidents appearing on Weibo, however, it’s not clear that violence is on the rise in China. Jia’s vision of his country is reminiscent of that of worried Americans, who are sure that their cities are crime-ridden, even though crime rates have fallen steadily for decades. In China, street crime is more common than it was in the Mao era, but Chinese cities are safe and killings rare. The echoing effect of social media may be distorting our perception, raising some of the same questions we may ask about the rise in reported rapes in the West: does it mean rape is increasing, or that more people are reporting it, or simply that reports of it can now spread faster and more widely? Increased reporting is important, as it implies changing social norms, but Jia seems to be arguing the harder-to-prove point that violence in China is up based on the notoriously unscientific indications of social media postings.
This approach lends his storytelling a sensational feel. At times, his characters seem as if they might have come from the pages of publications like the Legal Evening News, a Chinese newspaper popular for its lurid crime stories. Like these reports, or their social media versions on Weibo, Jia’s four stories are highly abbreviated and leave out some of the inner lives that he hopes his artistic renderings can reveal. The second story, for example, is about a murderous robber who doesn’t seem to have any redeeming features. Like the other protagonists, he comes from a cold, unloving family but seems motivated mainly by boredom. It’s difficult to reconcile this character with the martial arts heroes of old, who Jia says are his inspirations. The third story is probably meant to be the centerpiece—not least because it features Jia’s muse and wife, the actress Zhao Tao—but it’s relatively predictable and psychologically flat. From the moment the spurned lover accidentally ends up with a switchblade in her backpack, one ends up counting the minutes until she kills someone with it.
The film’s ending is also unsatisfying. In an effort to link the stories more directly, Jia has Zhao Tao’s character suddenly show up in the coal-mining town from the first piece looking for a job. Few of the details seem plausible—she is too old to be a migrant, she would never have gone to the poor town looking for work, and the would-be employers recognize her as having been in the news in some sort of bad way but hire her anyway. It’s all a bit forced.
And yet it’s hard not to see A Touch of Sin as one of the best Chinese films in recent years. It weaves in classical opera, rediscovered religious traditions, and the anomie of the migrant condition lived by millions of Chinese, even for those who can afford China’s new high-speed rail system, in which people seem to glide from one reality to the next in sequences of almost magical-realist beauty.
As for whether the film will be released in China, Jia is hopeful:
When I sent the film to the censor bureau, one of the censors in private told me, “Personally speaking, I really, really like this film.” So I said to him, “You shouldn’t split your personality when you’re doing your job.”