With his new 2013 film A Touch of Sin, Chinese Director Jia Zhang Ke, notable as the leading figure of the ‘Sixth Generation’ movement in Chinese cinema, focusing mainly on individuals, often marginalized from society, once again depicted the socio-economical situation in his home-country China. Due to the social awareness in his films that don’t try to evade the realities of modern China, in contrast to the prior ‘Fifth Generation’ from which Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern (1991)) is most-known, his work, especially his early ‘underground‘ films, made independent of government censors, can be regarded as highly influenced by Italian Neorealism of the 40s.
A Touch of Sin, however, sets itself apart from its predecessors. Never was a film by Jia Zhang Ke this violent. Never did he show this much. We follow the lives of 4 protagonists, who are not exactly interconnected, but all in their own right, presenting contemporary China, as seen through Jia’s eyes.
The Angry Miner
The village in this story is rotten and corruption can be found all over. An angry miner would like this situation to be changed, so he decides to let himself be heard. Not without some difficulties, as he cannot reach one single soul and is been silenced himself by the men in charge. After having come into contact with the fear of the ordinary man and the power of the rich, he learns that the only way to deal with the problem is by taking justice in his own hands, pitilessly. A cruel conclusion, meaning there is no justice. Having set his conscience aside, the miner concludes his fight against corruption with a grin on his face. As a viewer, you actually experience some empathy with this character, although he has just done some horrific things. Again, there is no justice.
The Bored Migrant
A portrayal of a man who finds no joy in life. Work, family, relationships, nothing can keep him away from the dark corridors of boredom. He would like nothing more than aimlessly riding around on his motorcyle, imitating movie characters Wyatt and Billy from Easy Rider (1969). Reference or not, it would be nothing new in the work of Jia Zhang Ke. In Unknown Pleasures (2002) he even referenced Pulp Fiction (1994) literally and put in some sort of homage to the famous Thurman-Travolta dance scene. But there’s one thing that keeps the migrant alive, as he discovers the excitement a gun can give him. Without any moral sense, he decides to use it on people. One could argue the fact that his victims have only been thieves and seemingly rich people, actually proves his moral sense. Or maybe it’s much easier to explain as he just enjoys to imitate the movies, when life clearly disappoints him.
We get to see a young woman, who works as a sauna receptionist, but hasn’t really found some order in her life yet. She’s having an affaire with a married man, doomed to end as he doesn’t seem to be completely willing to leave his family. She herself doesn’t seem too happy with the situation. Especially when she’s attacked by the furious wife of the man she’s sleeping with. The hypocrisy of the anger in this woman who wrongly sees her man as her own personal property is hideous. Not only in love, but also in her job our protagonist cannot find any satisfaction. When she’s mistaken for a masseuse by two rich fat Chinese clients and rejects their wishes, she’s immediately harassed by them, who clearly are not familiar with not getting what they want. Infuriated, as it is not the first discomfort that comes her way, she gets violent. Resulting in a very bloody scene and maybe a bit overdone. But isn’t that often the case with Asian Cinema? And would that be necessarily bad?
The Lonely Young Man
Now we look at a young man, moving from place to place, job to job, not knowing what it is he’s actually looking for. He’s the embodiment of many young people confused with what they want. Most of all, he wants to be left alone by other people. The man causes a work accident in which another worker got injured after he distracted him. As he’s responsible for it, his boss orders him, due to the many medical costs the company had to pay, to work for free for 2 weeks, giving his salary to the injured. Not pleased with this, he quits his job and goes away to find another one. A perfect example of his selfishness and desire of freedom, which he regrettably cannot attain. Still a young man and still full of life, he’s also in search for love. A search, which leads him to frustration.
There’s this scene in which his mother calls him, mainly to complain about the fact that he’s not sending any money, implying he’s all taking it for himself, which illustrates his feelings beautifully. As he cannot listen any longer to her criticisms, he starts to weep. He cannot live the way he wants to. He has to earn money doing an unpleasant job in order to lead a somewhat pleasant life. A paradox which he cannot justify. He sees only one solution…
As I said, thinking all these stories don’t have much in common, would be a mistake. The film doesn’t tell 4 separate short stories in four completely different worlds, but portrays one world consisting of many stories with the focus laid on 4. These stories, overlapping each other at times, all revolve around a lonely individual, surrounded by grand buildings, often ruined, symbolizing his detachment from his country, and all are put to an end in a dramatic climax as there’s no other way. One not as powerful as the other, but all very well-written. Making it a very entertaining Chinese film, also giving you a more precise image of China, as it is today.
If you liked this, be sure to check out Jia Zhang Ke’s earlier (as mentioned above) ‘underground’ films: Artisan Pickpocket (1997) (praised by American director Martin Scorsese), Platform (2000) (regarded as THE masterpiece of the ‘Sixth Generation’ movement) and Unknown Pleasures (2002).