Written by Jia Zhangke
Directed by Jia Zhangke
Oppressed and censored from its national origins, Jia Zhangke makes his prolific USA debut of A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding) at the New York Film Festival. Telling four overlapping parallel stories, each inspired by real-life depictions of violence, Zhangke shows no mercy for the four souls tormented by the political and social weight of the film’s portrayal of a corrupt Chinese government and fading belief system. Both marginalized yet timeless in scope, the film captures violence in bombastic outbursts but conveys its message with nodes of passive humanity and silent courage. Sin has the awareness of a news alert, but one filled with emotional outcries, callbacks to moral responsibility, and the right for personal freedom. Zhangke demands to be heard, even if China isn’t listening. To paraphrase the director, “Change will come about starting with small cinematic moments such as this.”
The first story follows a northern miner named Dahai (Jiang Wu), struggling with crooked village leaders. Out on a solitary protest against the village bosses, Dahai finds himself laughed and teased at by locals, who more or less turn their backs to his rants. Restrained by their everyday laborious routines, Dahai is alone on his quest for societal answers. In an act of desperation, Dahai snaps and murders those who stand in his way. What might be initially contrived as an unrighteous act of violence, is instead seen as inevitable justice by the director. The bigger concerns are with the people who, caught in the standstill of historic shifts, are exploited by officials who only value materialism. The film isn’t subtle in amplifying the notion that ignoring political injustices is far worse than lashing out against them.
Dahai’s story is followed by Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), who rides into the film after gunning down three gang members near the outskirts of Chongqing, a huge southwestern city on the upper Yangtze River. To no one’s surprise, Zhou San returns home to a poverty-stricken wife and child. With a jeopardized sense of will and a chilling demeanor, Zho takes matters into his bloody hands.
A Touch of Sin layers itself with impeccable tension and release. As if proclaiming an immediate call for action, Zhangke’s depiction of violence is both unsettling and sticking. Set locations are so desolate and undermine that the film plays off as a literal metaphor for the crumbling political schemes each character is forced to live under. Xiao Yu’s story is that of a sauna reception (Zhao Tao) who is consumed by her affair with a married man. Her entrance is marked by the man leaving, with a fateful knife taking his place. Her meek future is then shared by the fourth and final character of the film, Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), who is losing control of his debt and despondency.
With violent realism being the common thread that links all the stories, Zhangke shifts the tone with moments of poetic stylization. Before Dahai goes out on his massacre, he drapes linen with a tiger print over his shotgun. As if possessed by the animal, a symbol that kills evil men and protects the good, Dahai is transformed into the people’s maker.When Xiao Yu is beaten and strangled, she finds refugee in a sideshow van with snakes slithering by her feet. As if taking on a metamorphoses of her own spirituality, when the time comes to protect herself, she takes on exaggerated martial-art positions with knife in hand, waiting to strike fast. The device of transformation is taken quite literally in A Touch of Sin, a loud and bold statement for the Chinese government to follow in its same footsteps. By no means is Jia Zhangke’s masterpiece a subtle statement. Zhangke demands action, and demands it right now. A Touch of Sin is that loud omniscient wake-up call, one that rings truth and will inspire revolution.
– Christopher Clemente
The New York Film Festival celebrates 51 years and runs from September 27 to October 13, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.