Underdogs Changing China: Jia Zhangke’s 'A Touch of Sin'

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Wang Baoqiang as Zhao San in A Touch of Sin (Credit: Kino Lorber, Inc)

NEW  YORK - For years, I have sought out the works of Jia Zhangke, a film director working in China today who demonstrates a great affinity for the vanguards of contemporary art. His deliberate distrust of traditional story-telling techniques and commercially engineered stock characters, with their sentimental pitfalls, drives home the themes of alienation and dislocation in a sweeping visual journey through contemporary Chinese society. Earlier this week the 2013 New York Film Festival presented his latest work entitled A Touch of Sin (2013), a winner of the Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, as an official selection.

The film follows four misfits, each from a different part of China and speaking a different dialect, who find themselves wrought with insurmountable despair: a disillusioned miner who, in the face of the widespread corruption in his village, takes on a self-righteous rage for justice that rivals Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas; a drifting migrant who cold-bloodedly kills the victims of his robbery with a pistol that is “less dangerous” than a cell phone; a sauna receptionist who avenges herself on a sexually abusive client with a fruit knife left behind by her married lover; and a young factory worker who takes his own life after a series of degrading jobs. Violence seems to offer the only exit to their circumstances and, in the words of Jia, “the quickest and most direct way that the weak can try to restore their lost dignity.”

Zhao Tao, who married Jia in 2012 after the two had collaborated in 10 films, as Xiao Yu in A Touch of Sin (Credit: Kino Lorber, Inc)

Based on true news stories that have aroused public attention, A Touch of Sin continues Jia’s favored style of group portrait depictions. All four main characters are victims of previous violence by other people, but they are unable to channel their individual discontent through meaningful communication with the people surrounding them or with the justice system. Before the screening, I asked Jia whether the Chinese title Tian zhuding, which literally means “by heaven’s will” or “predestined,” connotes a sense of fatalism. Jia told me that one may read it as a statement of inescapable destiny and/or as the characters’ wishful thinking of taking heaven-willed justice into their own hands.

Jiang Wu as Dahai A Touch of Sin (Credit: Kino Lorber, Inc)

The world of Jia Zhangke, which chronicles China’s uneasy transition into modernity, revolves around the massive flows of migration in China that have brought to light hidden connections among disparate people. In 2006, Jia followed painter Liu Xiaodong in a journey to the Three Gorges where he took footage of Liu’s painting of migrant workers. Entitled Dong, the documentary in turn inspired Jia to make Still Life, a “fictional” account about how one marriage unwound while another rekindled against the backdrop of the industry-scarred Three Gorges Dam.

As Jia once noted, “The people in [Still Life] are like the figures in Xiaodong’s paintings. They are the most common people on the street. But each carries within himself a beauty ­– an intrinsic human beauty.” Driven by a “strong documentary urge,” both artists capture the quiet relationship between these unrepresented heroes and their banal settings, cast with an aura informed by the spirit of a changing epoch. Liu’s Prostitutes No. 9, which will be offered at Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art auction on October 6, exemplifies such aesthetics of suspended ideological considerations or moral judgments.

Liu Xiaodong, Prostitutes No. 9 (2001), Lot 1048 of Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art Sale, October 6, 2013, Hong Kong

In A Touch of Sin, Jia drew inspiration from the time-honored wuxia (roughly translated as “martial arts chivalry”) genre to construct his present-day narratives. “For reasons I can’t fully explain, these four individuals and the incidents they were involved in remind me of King Hu's martial arts films,” the director noted.

Wang Baoqiang as Zhao San in A Touch of Sin (Credit: Kino Lorber, Inc)

But why martial arts chivalry? I think in the Chinese society, wuxia stories offer a flight of fantasy. As a form of escapism, the world of wuxia has its own defined mores and order – xiayi, or chivalrous justice. Its characters, living by this system of value that parallels the social norm, but somehow remains outside it, can find a way to triumph over prevailing social injustice.

Jia’s characters seem to have found dignity in this alternative reality. And yet, chivalric stories are built around heroes and their noble deeds. By patterning their own violent acts after the wuxia tradition, Jia’s “anti-heroes” do not rise above their circumstances, but rather find themselves at risk of being left behind by a changing and unchanging China.

Jia Zhangke, Zhao Tao and me during the screening of the film at the NYFF. Photo by Tianyi Zhao, courtesy of China Happenings. 

Jia Zhangke: A Touch of Sin
Opens on October 4, 2013
IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
New York City

Chiu-Ti Jansen is a TV presenter, a publisher and a writer based in New York City with a pulse on China. 

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