A Touch Of Sin touches on what ails China

Director Jia Zhangke at his office, in front of an image from his latest film "A Touch of Sin," in Beijing, on Aug. 15, 2013. Reports of ordinary Chinese being driven to violence persuaded the director to put aside his first big-budget martial arts f
Director Jia Zhangke at his office, in front of an image from his latest film "A Touch of Sin," in Beijing, on Aug. 15, 2013. Reports of ordinary Chinese being driven to violence persuaded the director to put aside his first big-budget martial arts film and tell their story instead. -- PHOTO: NYT 

The Foxconn suicides. Deng Yujiao, the Hubei waitress at a sauna club who killed a man in self-defence. Zhou Huake, the Chongqing robber who blew apart his victims’ brains. And Hu Wenhai, the Shanxi vigilante who killed 14 people in the name of pursuing justice against corrupt officials.

These real-life cases scandalised China and have now been dramatised in A Touch Of Sin, the latest film of leading Chinese arthouse director Jia Zhangke.

Jia’s film won raves at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, winning an award for Best Script. It also got warm applause when it made its Asian premiere at the Busan International Film Festival two weeks ago.

While Jia’s movie is reportedly slated to open in China next month, many wonder if censors would still somehow find fault with his frank depiction of the bleakness of life in China.

The movie by Jia, who is arguably the best known Chinese arthouse film-maker today, is already attracting buzz on Chinese movie websites. Those who have seen it at film festivalsoutside China give it an average rating of 8.2/10 on China’s douban website, which hosts movie discussions.

I would give it a 8.

I caught the movie in a packed theatre in Busan last week and couldn’t help but nod at the many parts that struck me as true.

“Jia Zhangke steps out of his contemplative comfort zone for this brutal attack on the economic rot of modern China,” so goes the synopsis in the festival programme.

And hack at it, he does.

China is no America, land of the right to carry a gun, but the bullets sure fly in this study of social violence in China.

Jia’s script may be based on real incidents, but he has eschewed realism for a touch of gongfu.

For instance, Deng Yujiao, the waitress who almost got raped, is portrayed almost like a swordswoman in the way she brandishes her knife to defend her honour.

It is no coincidence that the English title of Jia’s film, called Tian Zhu Ding in Chinese, is A Touch Of Sin, an echo of the classic martial arts flick A Touch Of Zen by director King Hu.

Hu Wenhai, who went on a killing spree after a failed bid to expose the alleged corruption of the local party chief, is played with a swagger like a hero from the Outlaw Of The Marshes.

The martial arts reference underscores perhaps the sense that the Chinese are living in a topsy turvy world in which one has to take matters into one’s hands.

Unlike Jia's earlier works, with their freer rhythm and looser narrative, A Touch Of Sin gets down to business briskly.

Each narrative thread is connected to another with an overlapping character. In one instance, the bank robber whose story we have been tracking gets off the bus and the camera shifts to another passenger and the narrative shifts to this next protagonist, a factory manager.

When the manager's tale is done, we see him talking to two migrant workers and the camera moves on to the next story.

Jia has a wry eye on the ironies of modern China: Like when a truck with villagers holding up a portrait of Jesus Christ makes a turn in front of a Mao Zedong statute. Or when social escorts at a sex club in Dongguan, south China, parade in Red Guard uniforms with plunging necklines in front of men in suits.

The movie is a broad survey of China’s struggling lower classes, taking in stories, dialects and accents from all corners.

In the segment on the Foxconn suicides, a man with a Taiwanese accent tells a Hunan teen starting work on the factory assembly line that he has a bright future. Days later, the young man jumps from his hostel building.

Many of the scenarios contain pointed commentaries about the dismal state of affairs in China.

For instance, the Hunan teen chats with his fellow Hunanese, a female sex worker at the Dongguan club, over the news articles she reads on an iPad.

An official was found with 120 Louis Vuitton bags, she exclaims. Shall we leave a comment, she asked her male friend. Yes, TMD, he says in his thick Hunan accent. This means“tamade”, a swear word in Chinese.

She then reads another news item about dozens of coal miners dying in a blast. She turns to him and again asks him what she should post. Again, he says, let's put down TMD.

It’s almost as if Jia is saying, if the internet is supposed to bring change and give voice to the masses, this is the sad truth instead: one can swear as much as one likes but what can one change?

In another scene, a few women stand around to watch and eat peanuts as Xiaoyu, the character representing Deng Yujiao, gets beaten up by thugs hired by the wife of her married lover.

Bruised and bloodied, Xiaoyu staggers towards a white van that looks like a first-aid station.

It is actually a “quack” station promising miracles from a snake deity that can solve all ills.

At least the young woman posing as a snake deity offers Xiaoyu a tissue. It’s as if Jia is saying that tricksters may be selling “snake oil” to the faithless, but people have to fall back on whatever works in this age of amorality.

In another scene, a client at the Dongguan sex club who asked to be serviced by a sex worker wearing a train attendant uniform questions, “Are there any innovations recently?”

So a top-down emphasis from the central authorities on innovation - China has to upgrade its economy to deliver prosperity to its people - has trickled down to even the country’s sex joints.

The movie is not without flaws and it has been criticised for being too commercial.

But overall, it hits home with its sharp portrayal of the injustices of life in China and the sinful responses that they sometimes trigger.