Jia Zhangke’s new film, A Touch of Sin, is a gruesomely unforgiving portrait of modern China. Plagued by poverty, corruption, and injustice, each of the protagonists is justifiably driven to the breaking point in four mini-stories based on real and notorious incidents of shocking violence.
The narrative is a strange combination of action film and almost neo-realist monotony, following the lives of four average people of varying ages and genders. The first, Dahai (Wu Jiang), is a coal-miner unhappy that his small town’s publicly owned mine has been sold and the profits hoarded by a few individuals. The second, Zhou San (Baoqiang Wang), is a young man who murders and steals to send money to his family. The third, Xiao Yu (Tao Zhao), is a hostess at a sauna and hotel having an affair with a married man. And the last, Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo), is a young factory employee and waiter who falls in love with a sex worker.
Despite their different ages and genders, all of the characters are similarly afflicted by China’s widening wage gap. This is most obvious in the first, in which Dahai and his fellow villagers can barely afford cramped, deteriorating homes, but the village chief owns a luxury car, a modern home, and a recently purchased private jet. Dahai is brutally beaten and oppressed when he attempts to speak up, and compared visually to a horse that is whipped by its owner until it can no longer stand. The other stories follow suit with animal imagery, constantly comparing the conditions and treatment of the Chinese people to livestock and wildlife. Each one of the characters suffers or at least witnesses brutality, and this suffering drives them to aggression.
And by no means does Zhangke shy away from violence. Instead of censoring or veiling the brutality of modern China in metaphor, every beating and shooting in the film is depicted as clear as day. When a character runs away from thugs, the camera follows him like a vulture until he is caught and beaten into submission. When a gun is fired, Zhangke’s camera goes so close you can see the smoke drift from the bullet hole and the blood seep out onto the floor. When a fist makes contact with bone, the sound is heightened to the point where it all you want to do is close your eyes and cover your ears. All around me in the theater people were cringing and trying to look away, but the film offers no escape.
At first, this violence seems to be little more than shocking, but as the film progresses it becomes more routine and subtle, present in every aspect of the film. In the second story, it seems only natural that a friendly conversation over mahjong escalates into a bloody fist fight. In the third, as Xiao Yu travels between her work and the tent in which her mother lives, it is unsurprising that she witnesses the beating of a driver for refusing to pay an unofficial toll. By the time the fourth story begins, it is almost shocking that there are no violent encounters. Although the story begins with a gruesome factory accident due to the lack of safety precautions, the segment’s tensest encounter ends without a thrown punch, and the violence that does happen is self-inflicted. In place of murder, suicide becomes the only solution available.
A Touch of Sin’s true success is its ability to both condemn and justify this violence at the same time. The establishment of motive makes a huge difference in how each act of violence is understood and whether or not it is acceptable. Zhangke forces the viewer to understand why the violence happens by making the injustice as obvious as possible, but he lingers on the horror and gore of each scene to remind us that it is still senseless. Additionally, the frequent long takes of the film make the audience tense and uncomfortable, and the montages in which the characters wander from one empty locale to another create a longing for any kind of action. This is most obvious in the third story, in which a drunk man slaps Xiao Yu in the face with a wad of money while yelling for what feels like forever about how he can buy her, letting the audience reach the breaking point at the same time as she does.
Ultimately, each of the endings is complete, but somewhat dissatisfying in that there is no conclusion. We are shown the injustice and violence, but not the resolution or consequences perhaps because there is no resolution. Zhangke ensures that no one can leave the theater without seeing the problems China faces, but he offers no easy solution because there is none.