Jia Zhangke is one of China’s most prominent film directors, but his latest movie has been banned inside the country itself for its treatment of sensitive subjects. “A Touch of Sin” was nominated for best picture at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and won the best screenplay award for Jia. The movie is considered a harsh criticism of the new “capitalist” order in China, though it is hard for me to tell how much that was Jia’s intent, and how much is the knee-jerk reaction of liberal Western movie reviewers, who have given “A Touch of Sin” a remarkable 92 percent critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Without a doubt, the movie is exceptionally well produced. It’s a two-hour downer, but a downer I would readily see again if I had the opportunity—it is that good. There is no music; the stories are gripping enough without musical promptings of your emotions. The violence is graphic but surgical. The English subtitles are the easiest to read on the screen in my memory. The cinematography is outstanding, even though I do not recall one frame where we see clear skies; whether mountains or cityscapes, all are shrouded in pollution, perhaps a metaphor for the storyline itself.
“A Touch of Sin” is in fact four stories. You proceed from one to the other with no signal other than the characters changing. Corruption and violence are the leitmotifs of the four stories. All are based on “true stories” of modern China, though, as usual with movies, the truth is often forsaken, or expanded, for dramatic effect.
The first story involves a miner fighting local corruption by the party chief in his village. This is a very widespread problem in China, of course. Our character’s final solution is a shooting spree, though he hardly comes across as a hero, aiming his hunting shotgun at the innocent as well as the guilty.
The second story is the shortest and most disturbing of the four. It depicts a deranged individual who kills for money, and is based on the case of a Chinese gunman who was charged with robbing and killing at least nine people, putting him on China’s “most wanted” list. I thought this was the least successful of the four stories, since I got no clue as to his motives or delusions.
I found the third story to be the most poignant, as it touches on the degradations suffered by too many women in China. A young woman finally realizes her married lover is not going to leave his wife and marry her, but she faces even worse conditions in her subsequent jobs. Finally, as a receptionist at a massage parlor, she is accosted by a local businessman brute who attempts to rape her, before she stabs and kills him in self-defense. Her ultimate fate is left in question in the movie, but in real life Deng Yujiao became a cause célèbre across China in 2009, with hundreds of thousands of Chinese protesting her imprisonment for murder, resulting in her release.
The last of the four stories follows the downward path of a young man ill equipped to advance himself in the new society. He is too moral and traditional to continue in his job as a concierge at a sex hotel for China’s 1 percent, but his final job as an assembly line worker for a “Fortune 500” company makes him so despondent that he commits suicide.
These are deeply personal and touching stories, exceptionally well acted, but in the hands of movie critics they become something more: an indictment of modern “capitalism” in China. The last story is the most obvious in this regard. It is based on a real-life 2010 spate of suicides at Foxconn, a large contractor for Fortune 500 companies. I have no doubt that Foxconn would not be my employer of choice, but the fact is that the suicide rate among its employees was much lower than in China in general, as well as in all 50 of the United States. But we don’t want that to interfere with a good victim-oppressor, labor-capitalist, story, do we?
A more honest treatment would compare the lives of these industrial workers with the starvation-level lives they “enjoyed” in the good old days, not to mention the lives of the first generation of industrial workers in Britain and the U.S. In the West, each generation built on the previous generation’s achievements, and I have no doubt that will happen in China, if the politicians and crony capitalists don’t muck things up.
One final observation from your Sinophile reviewer. I have always felt much safer in China than I have in the United States, whether I am walking alone after midnight in Beijing’s Chaoyang Park (its “Central Park”) or in hinterland areas where I am the only American in sight, sometimes the only Westerner in sight. I do not believe in romanticizing a society, or downplaying its dark side, but this is a movie only about the dark side of Chinese society. Granted, as a foreigner I cannot enter the worlds depicted in “A Touch of Sin,” but I also know that far away from the tourist world of five-star hotels, I have seen the bright side of Chinese society, where millions of Chinese are enjoying a life never before possible.
In the tension between capitalism and traditional society, it does seem inevitable that crime is going to increase, though let’s hope not to the level we put up with in America. China is entering the modern world, for better and worse.