The promotional material surrounding Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (2013) concocts spurious images of knife play, bombastic explosions and plenty of bloodshed. Could this be a sign that China’s foremost independent filmmaker has finally decided to play ball with the state? Anyone familiar with the deliberately languid and meditative approach of the director will know this type of aesthetic is the antithesis of his methodology, yet the threat of violence has always been prevalent within his work. By focusing on four real life incidents of violence, all ignored by the Chinese media, Jia has managed to dexterously work the system to his advantage, appropriating big-action movie tropes to augment his state of the nation address.
The first of Jia’s quadtych tales is set in a coal mining community in China’s Shanxi province. An angry villager attempts to denounce the corruption and profiteering behind the recent privatisation of his local mine. His attempts at whistle-blowing fall on deaf ears so he decides to take matters into his own hands. The second focuses on a young man disillusioned with the world, who performs a series of calculated murders purely out of boredom. The third chapter observes a woman whose lover won’t leave his wife. She’s coerced into violence by an act of sexual brutality at the sauna she works at. A spate of suicides by assembly line workers is the basis for the final chapter, which emphasises the emotional and psychological wellbeing of a young migrant worker who leaves his factory job to work in a city brothel.
An action film that clings mercifully to its intellectual consciousness, A Touch of Sin weaves its web of violence and retribution against the social fabric that has long underpinned Jia’s work. For all its visual finery, the formal prowess and disaffected tone of previous outings are still very much apparent. Many will find segments of A Touch of Sin sluggish thanks to Jia’s editorial austerity and penchant for long contemplative takes, but it’s in the individual psychological battles and the nexus that links each chapter that the film’s real conflict can be unearthed. A reliance on overly stylised and carefully orchestrated instants of violence help articulate the internal trauma of the characters whilst also making a succinct comment on the cultural homogenisation of the Chinese film industry. However, the emotional weight of these scenes hit like a guttural punch thanks to the empathy Jia permits his characters.
While this may be Jia’s most marketable work to date, there’s no denying it’s also the singular work of one of China’s foremost directors. Aesthetics aside, there’s no thematic compromise here and Jia’s subtle machinations about the government are visible in the trademark surrealism that peppers the action. The deployment of symbolism entwines Western style violence with Chinese folklore and allows us to inhabit the space between fact and fiction, interweaving between the two in order to articulate the absurdity of modern life and China’s collision between neoliberal and Confucius values. Despite a focus on varying geographical Chinese locations, this thematic study into China’s sociopolitical landscape touches upon universal issues of corruption and disparity. As a ‘state of the nation’ inquiry, A Touch of Sin is a powerful allegory for a nation in crisis; a damming indictment of an inequitable world.