In “A Touch of Sin,” four depressing stories float into one other, all said to be based on news stories from Chinese papers.
A Touch of Sin, directed by Jia Zhangke. At the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA, January 3 through 6.
By Gerald Peary
Jia Zhangke, China’s most important dissident filmmaker (Still Life, The World, Platform), does what he does best in A Touch of Sin. He makes trouble. Once again, Jia shows the new China of post-capitalism as a venal, impossibly corrupt and cynical place where the downtrodden millions are set adrift, almost as maltreated, and just as hopeless, as sufferers under Mao. With each movie, Jia is fearless in his criticism – a conscience and a pest, seemingly taunting the Chinese authorities to shut down his work, and perhaps arrest him.
SPOILER ALERT: the only way to talk sensibly about this movie is through revealing the plot.
In A Touch of Sin, four depressing stories float into one other, all said to be based on news stories from Chinese papers. These are sensationalist tabloid ones, “ripped from the headlines,” of violence, murder, prostitution, and suicide. The tone of the film is set in the first minutes, when a man on a motorcycle, riding through the mountains, is stopped by three bandits with knives demanding his money. The motorcycle guy makes like Mad Max, pulls out a revolver and plugs the trio of culprits. Then he calmly rides away. He returns later in the movie at his mother’s house, explaining to mom that life in his home town is boring, only firing guns isn’t boring. Soon after, he has a great old time putting on a mask and robbing a woman in the streets. It’s an opportune moment for him to shoot her dead and also the man who turns to witness the thievery. Why not, in nihilist China?
Story two is of a hotheaded, big-mouthed worker named Dahal living in a rural coal town. He can’t get over the fact that his old school friend, now a super-wealthy mine owner, has reneged on a promise to return 40% of his profits to the miners. There’s a wonderfully acerbic scene at an airport, where the mine owner, returning from a Hong Kong vacation, lands his private jet. He emerges to be greeted by a percussion band in Communist red, and with flowers brought to him by young children, just the way Marxist revolutionary readers used to be feted. Nothing changes.
The tabloid story? Dahal, a bit of a schnook, goes mad after he’s beaten severely by a thug working for the mine owner. He leaves the hospital, loads a shotgun, and goes on a killing spree aimed at the management of the coal mine. His sixth assassination, of the coal mine boss, brings a smile to Dahal’s face, perhaps the only grin anywhere in this planned downer of a movie.
The most sympathetic character in A Touch of Sin is the heroine of part 3, she with dead-end employment as the only non-sex worker in a massage parlor, and enmeshed in a dead-end relationship with a gutless married man. This nice woman is pressured from all sides, from the married man’s estranged jealous wife to several of China’s new moneyed class demanding sex from her. Surely not her intention, she ends up a killer, walking down a highway with a bloody knife in her hand.
Story 4? Another unhappy one, naturally, of a young lad who leaves his factory job and gets employment as a waiter in a grand hotel designed for “distinguished guests” from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The hotel turns out to be a lavish front for a whorehouse. The capitalist guests pick out from a dance line girls donned in faux Red Army outfits with low fronts and mini-skirts. Story 4 ends with a ghastly suicide, a body catapulted from a balcony with an awful thump hitting the ground.
Finally, Jia’s epilogue. The heroine of part 3, on the run from the “law,” walks into a public square, where a traditional Chinese opera is being performed for the peasant crowds. A female character in the musical opera has committed a murder, and she is questioned, “Do you understand your sin?” At last, the title of Jia’s movie: the “sin” is your inevitably tainted, compromised life, residing in the new China.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.