A Touch of Sin
For the longest of times, the idea of Chinese film didn’t really stretch past the borders of Hong Kong and its legendary action cinema. It’s only been in recent years that mainland China has found its way onto the global market, and for a country with such a complex modern political history it’s quite alarming that those few filmmakers who adopt the plight of China into their cinematic language have become so renowned without invoking a similar plight to that of Jafar Panahi (This is a not Film & Taxi Tehran). Such fabricated prison sentences and creative banishment do come about, as depicted in Alison Klayman’s excellent 2011 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Whether that is Jia Zhang Ke, Lu Chuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, Wang Quan’an of the ‘sixth generation’ or the occasional film work of artist Ai Weiwei, the political and social acuity of these reputable names makes for a much more vivid picture of China than the world cinema crowd previously been afforded. Of those forthright filmmakers, Jia Zhangke is the most famous beyond the borders of his own country, a fact paid honour by Arrow Academy releasing a collection of his films. Zhangke’s best-known film and the headline act of this set is 2014’s A Touch of Sin.
Zhangke’s films are in awe of the neo-realist movements and filmed with a style consistent since his early days working on documentaries. And while that hasn’t been dropped, the film is comparatively and unusually visceral. Using the anthology, A Touch of Sin takes people from differing socioeconomic backgrounds from across China and shows the stimuli that could drive a person to violence. There are four such stories packed with his customary commentary. The first features a miner (Jiang Wen) who rampages against a company head, the second has a migrant worker return home for his mother’s 70th birthday, the third has a child from the provinces who can only find work in an exploitative factory or a brothel, and finishes with a massage parlor receptionist (Zhao Tao). Each part is based on a real event, furthering Zhangke’s commentary on Modern China, the loose inspirations are Hu Wenhai (2001), Zhou Kehua (2004-2012), Deng Yujiao incident (2009) and the Foxconn suicides (2007-2013).
As is ever the case with a film made of smaller thematic pieces, consistency is the biggest problem. While clever and stylish, it is both a paragon of the portmanteau and limited because of it. The quality varies from the fascinatingly vivid to the inert – the short starring Jiang Wen warrants its length and expanding further still to feature length. As does the story that begins by criticizing the lack of oppurtunities in parts of the vast country and closes on a plot beat adjacent to exploitation mainstay, rape revenge – albeit through the tasteful and highly politicised hues of the sixth generation. Those two demand their screen time and more, one takes an uncharacteristically cinematic conclusion with the remaining one becoming utterly forgettable beyond its leads choice of head-ware.
Jia Zhang-Ke is a subdued director, which makes the short that sees regular collaborator Tao Zhao posing like Meiko Kaji after a sexually aggressive exchange. As an image it doesn’t quite gel in with the rest of the film, while erratic and off-key, there is a message in those frames that satirizes the angel of death image worshipped by cult film aficionados. The two tales of woe and violence that bookend bares the marks of any good anthology story in that they make you wish it was a film unto itself rather than a compacted component of something larger. The first sees Dahai (Jiang Wen) rally against his villages corruption in a way comparable to the Korean revenge thriller. With its fourth short, a Touch of Sin closes with its the biggest departure for reasons best kept quiet, in that finale a young man runs away from his obligations only to find unrequited love in the unlikeliest of places.
Storytelling requires a level of economy, which is to say time and energy isn’t expended on supporting characters and although that is a byproduct of telling multiple stories within the space of two and a half hours it does result in Jia Zhang-Ke’s script becoming lopsided. The characters he has affection for are characterized in a way that leads the violence to a profound emotional conclusion, and the others are just there to plug up a gap in the grand narrative.
Jia Zhangke style is relatable to that of a documentary, in that he employs handheld cameras and lingers on every shot as a mean to represent the real, to peel away the artifice found in more conventional corners of cinema. Editing duo Matthieu Laclau & Xudong Lin deviate from that historical convention in some real pleasing ways. While the violence is abrupt and unglamorous, their editing implies that China is a country where violence has been ingrained into the national psyche. Whether that is implied by cutting to local festivities from a nasty skirmish or the unsightly animal cruelty that the editing makes you complicit to, the collaborative forces of the editing and cinematography carry the film through its dreary middle section whilst also telling their own adjacent stories that are far wider reaching and critical in their connotations.
Jia Zhang Ke’s a Touch of Sin is equally majestic in its perfectionism as it subject to the inconsistencies of the anthology film, a sad fate for such an exhaustively thrilling exposure mapping the people lost in the pursuit of progression. While the film is more compartmentalized than anything its director had done before or since and has a relationship on on-screen violence than is atypical for everyone involved, it is still the best film to exhibit the copious talents of one of the most prodigiously talented filmmakers operating today. Beyond this, the accompanying films in this Arrow Academy set compliment each aspect of his voice as a filmmaker. 24 City blurs the lines beautifully between documentary and drama, and Mountains may Depart features the director’s wife, Zhao Tao, and Frank Goes to Hollywood’s musical oeuvre as canvases for how China has developed over the past 20 years and what may come to be. Throughout this trio of films, Arrow Academy has made a pretty stellar case that shows few filmmakers have their finger on the pulse of the developing Chinese identity like Jia Zhangke.
Three Films by Jia Zhangke is out now on Arrow Academy
24 City featured on Episode 144 of Cinema Eclectica Podcast