Film Review: A touch of Sin

A movie review

Gus McCubbing

Society and culture | East Asia

30 May 2014

Gus McCubbing reviews the new Chinese film everyone’s talking about.

A Touch of Sin, 2013
Director: Jia Zhang Ke

The poster boy of China’s “Sixth Generation” cinematic movement, Jia Zhangke, has in his latest work maintained his penchant for gritty realism, but has now spliced this with an element of sporadic and highly confrontational violence. Starring Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao, and Wang Baoqiang, A Touch of Sin shows the human cost of Chinese modernity, the dark underworld that lies beneath the vacuous nationalism found in political slogans such as Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” and Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream”.

Having shot to fame for his independent works Xiao Wu and Platform, Jia eventually was able to work in China with state approval, directing the internationally acclaimed The World and Still Life. However, A Touch of Sin draws upon recent controversial events in China, such as the ‘Foxconn suicides’, where fourteen Chinese workers at the Taiwanese-owned contract manufacturer killed themselves by leaping off a building. As such, it comes as no surprise that Chinese censors have still not cleared the film for release in the Mainland, while a leaked government document highlighted that the Central Propaganda Department has directed state media not to discuss the film or its director at all.

Screened in competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the A Touch of Sin won the “Best Screenplay Award”, leading one to potentially draw similarities between Jia’s latest work and that of Quentin Tarantino. However, with its ‘rampage of the everyman’ plot, the film is probably more akin to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant or Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. Composed of bleak four vignettes—again all adapted from real-life occurrences in China—it is a film about average Chinese resorting to extraordinary measures when faced with dead-end jobs, gender imparity, exploitation, and corruption. It is a film that balances dreamy bucolic sets with urban landscapes choked by pollution. It is a film that takes the viewer on a journey across China, from the northern Shanxi, to the southwest Chongqing, central China’s Hubei, and on to the southern province of Guangdong. And while it could be simply perceived as a film indulging in gratuitous “ultraviolence”, Jia’s intention was quite the opposite.

In an interview with The New York Times, Jia explained that “what we see in China today is that these kind of events happen all the time.” So his desire in A Touch of Sin was not to glamorize violent thrill-seeking, but to normalize peoples’ ultimate breaking points, and to touch upon the “profound social reasons why they occur”.

“I think the biggest problem is that economic reform has given rise to many problems. These problems need to be solved as soon as possible. Chief among them are the problem of social inequality and problems such as distribution of income. I feel that inequality is the basis of all of these. It includes the restrictions on young people as they are trying to get ahead. I think we must use reform to solve these problems.”

 A Touch of Sin offers its Western audience an insight to what may more closely resemble real China, beyond the cinematographically lush, but entirely unprovocative works pumped out by Zhang Yimou and other veterans of the ‘Fifth Generation’. So despite issues surrounding censorship, with hope A Touch of Sin permeates both the local and international audiences in some fashion, because it is truly a modern Chinese classic.

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