A Touch of Sin is the latest film from award-winning Chinese director Jia Zhangke, who’s most well-known film, Still Life, won the Golden Lion at the 63rd Venice Film Festival. Last year A Touch of Sin also won Best Screenplay at Cannes.
The filmmaker’s latest feature, after the success of 24 City (2008), is his most dramatic work to date. Jia’s previous works reveal a fascination with real people and events, especially his three documentary series: Dong (2006), Useless (2007) and I wish I Knew (2010). In following the life of a painter, a fashion designer and 18 celebrities, he was able to look into the lives of people along the Yangtze River, the traditional clothing industry in China, and the changing landscape of Shanghai city in the past hundred years. His previous feature films Still Life (2006) and 24 City (2008) were made in a social realist style. Over the years this has become his signature.
Not to steer too far from his comfort zone, in this film, Jia Zhangke keeps his eye on reality, however the way he illustrates it differs greatly from his previous material. The Chinese classic novel Water Margin inspired the storyline for A Touch of Sin, and there are parallels between the characters in the film and the novel. In both, the people suffer from rapid changes that affect their society, resulting in unexpected acts of violence. Another new influence on Zhangke’s film is the Wuxia martial arts genre, particularly the work of the Shaw Brothers Studio from Hong Kong.
His film is exquisite. He delicately describes the interaction of people, the inappropriate relationship between siblings, and the subtle feelings expressed between lovers and family. The imagery of his film is another highlight. From a flipped truck carrying deep red tomatoes, the local pool town coated with numerous government signs, the tiny crowded bus, glimpses of the Yangtze River, a celebrating farmer’s village, a surreal cliff and a cold, simple, boring staff dormitory; his images illustrate each character’s isolated helplessness.
The story is based on four real violent social events that have happened in China in the past. However, the film simplifies the background and reasoning behind these crimes. Similar to his previous films, Jia likes to portray ordinary people from small towns. The first story is about a man who goes on a killing spree, targeting people he knows and lives alongside, after missing out on a promotion at the local coal mine. His murderous deeds are an act of desperation and corruption, brought on by the widening of the gap between the rich and poor and bureaucratic inertia.
The second story is about a thief who travels around China and foreign countries because he cannot bear the mundane life he leads in his small home town. He is obsessed with using guns and living in sin. This episode contains one particularly effective scene when the man walks back home with his wife and son, and they look across the river to the city on the other bank – enormous and full of possibilities compared to their small town. This scene is echoed again when the city is lit up with fireworks during New Year’s Eve and the robber substitutes fireworks for gun fire for his son, contrasting between the municipal wealth and his comparative poverty.
The third story is about a receptionist in a sauna who kills people in self-defence. It is here that the influence of Wuxia is most obvious, where Zhangke employs the conventions of the genre to paint a picture of the inside of someone’s mind suffering a crisis. A powerful example is a scene where a woman runs into a truck full of snakes, and is passed a piece of tissue to show her sympathy. The final story revolves around a suicide. Once more the character is a young man who moves from a small town to the big city, where work gives him no dignity.
Are the stories real? Yes. Is the film controversial? Yes. Could this kind of film be shown in China? No, not yet. Does this only happen in China? No, events like this occur all over the world.
Jia Zhangke is brave to use the bad guys as his main characters. The first and second characters especially are the kind of bad guy that all societies acknowledge. Which is why the topic will be so controversial in China. It doesn’t matter how many people you kill in a film, when the story is based on real cases, the film stops being plain entertainment. Perhaps Zhangke has read Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, which looks at how good people do bad things and moral people become immoral? Everyone makes mistakes, whether you are a “good man” or a “bad man”.
Within a Chinese context it is possible to see the influence of Confucian philosopher Xunzi in A Touch of Sin. Xunzi believed that humans are naturally wayward, contrary to Mencius who thought humans are naturally good. They both advocate the importance of moral education, which should lead us in the right direction, but for Xunzi without this we will probably end up with a little bit too much sin.
Initially I thought the film covered too much ground too quickly. Each event touches on a massive social problem that deserves more space. The second story was especially hard for me to understand: how can someone commit a crime just because their life is boring? This seemed like a flaw, until a young man went on a killing spree on a Taiwan tube train in May, 2014, apparently explaining that he “had fantasised about a subway killing spree” since he was young.
Then, just one week after I had the pleasure of interviewing Jia, A famous young anchorman with an enviable job, life and family, committed suicide in my hometown back in Taiwan. It was discovered he had a long history of melancholia, and yet it still doesn’t explain the real reason behind his untimely death.
I realised that there is no rational explanation for the motivation to kill. The thing we can do is face it, as Jia Zhangke does in this film, and love our families and friends.
A Touch of Sin is out in UK cinemas from Friday 16th May.
Watch our video interview with Jia Zhangke here.