Middlebury College, as a part of the Hirschfield Film Series, screened Jia Zhangke’s first award winning film A Touch Of Sin, which was nominated for the Palm d’Or and won the best screenplay. it is perhaps an honor, and an irony, that our screening on Saturday, Oct. 26 preceded its premiere in China.
Even the agonizing low chair backs of Dana auditorium do little to prepare one for the simultaneously brutal and poignant experience of the film. Shot in his typical social-realist style, Jia shocks his audience by momentarily jerking the film into spurts of visceral, blood-spattering violence. According to Jia, this is the most violent movie he has ever made. Audiences can expect an interesting cognitive experience - the combination of realism and Tarantino-esque surrealistic butchery, which serves for a more realistic portrayal of violence.
Yet, Jia’s themes remain central to China’s social problems. Through the film, he aims to examine the root of violent events in China, convinced that they must share a common cause. This belief is illustrated in the brief moments during which the main characters come into contact.
The film consists of four stories adapted from real life events. Like a structured essay, Jia’s study of violence neatly divides into four parts that detail all aspects of violence - the first story describes its cause, the second the reaction to violence, the third the emotions of the perpetrator and the last the hopelessness conveyed through violence. According to Jia, the setting of the movie in spring foreshadows a sense of chaos, as it is a time of condensed traffic and mobility, with migrant workers returning home to celebrate Chinese New Year with their families. The momentum of this social flux creates a sense of tension that buoys forth the action in the film.
It is worth noting that the title of the film is a play on words of the Taiwanese wuxia film A Touch of Zen, as a bold satirization of the ‘heroic acts’ portrayed within. The original Chinese title of the movie also appropriately translates to The Heavens Destined, as elements of determinism underpin the film. In the first story, Dahai takes on the role of a ferocious harbinger of justice, carrying a tiger-printed flag that camouflages his rifle as a flagpole, avenging the corrupt politicians that sapped the village dry of public resources.
On the other hand, Xiao Yu echos the image of a martial arts heroine, slaughtering villains who attempt to take advantage of her. It seems she was destined from the outset to slay the two bullies, as the contraband cutlery she helps her paramour take home from the airport is coincidentally used as her instrument of righteous execution. Not only is her act of killing a defense against sexual abuse, but also a defense for her reputation - she did not lure her paramour into having a relationship with her, despite accusations from her paramour’s wife. Her character is paralleled by the snakes which haunt her presence - demons in Chinese folklore that long for love. They appear on display in the van and again on television in the film Green Snake while she is resting in the sauna. Her ultimate liquidation of the two men seems to relieve her from the wrong accusations she bears, as mirrored by the release of the snakes. Before she calls the police to surrender, we see a green snake slithering down the side of the road into the grass, freed into nature. Other liberated animals are also seen - a herd of liberated cows and a monkey, which reflect her emotional release from the unjust accusations she carries. On the other hand, the antithetical ‘white snake’ in the folklore seems to mirror Lianrong, who is dressed in white when she is off from work. Like the story of Xiao Hu, her release of the goldfish seems to embody a desire to cleanse herself of the taint she bears as an escort in the club. Similarly, after Dahai commits murder, he releases the horse that was being continuously beaten by man in the blue jacket. Ironically, murder seems to free the murderers from a sense of injustice inflicted upon them.
The “Heavens” also happens to be the principal culprit behind the killer’s homicides and Xiao Hui’s eventual suicide. With every shot fired to the sky post-murder, the killer theatrically expresses his deeply rooted animosity against the Gods. His motives to kill do not seem to stem from economic hardship - having wired his wife some thirteen thousand yuan a few days beforehand, the murderer isn’t exactly poverty-stricken. Instead, he murders for the thrill and excitement which his dreary hometown lacks, as he eventually reveals to his wife upon her discovering three train tickets in his bag. Indeed, his actions exude a sense of misanthropic fatalism toward all human relationships: on the barge home, he blatantly refuses his neighbor a light for his cigarette despite the cheerful, festive vibe along the passengers. At home he cruelly pinches the cheek of his son and forces him to bow down to his mother. His acts of murder come across as an avengement against the Gods, whom he feels were responsible for placing him in such a state of existential angst and hopelessness.
Similarly, the “Heavens” is also one of the reasons Xiao Hui threw himself off the balcony. His dramatic death is a dismal tribute to a dawning disillusionment in people whom he mistakenly took to be genuine and loving: people like Lianrong, who emanates such superficial purity, but turns out to have had a baby with someone else. Not by coincidence, Xiao Hui’s friendship with his coworker is also summarily destroyed after Xiao is wrongly blamed for his coworker's severed finger. Coupled with the hurt of his mother failing to understand the circumstances that prevented him from sending money home, he now picks up the metal rod which his coworker almost bludgeoned him with, and takes this as divine permission that he can finally resign from his purgatorial torment and terminate at long last, his pathetic, bitter waste of an existence.
The last scene powerfully conveys the sense of injustice surrounding the characters’ lives at a time where everything is arbitrary, subject to the whims of China’s unjust government. In this scene, Xiao Hui, remitted from criminal conviction, is inexplicably moved as she watches a Chinese Opera court scene wherein a female convict is condemned, despite her protest of innocence. The court scene is a disturbing microcosm of the unjust governmental systems in China that fail to grant its people justice and equality.
And yet what choice do they have? People have been pushed to the verge of madness. Not only are people degenerating into ‘animals’, they are becoming inferior to animals - as shown in the scene where a man in a blue jacket beats a horse until it lays down in capitulation and pain. One scene that struck me in particular was when the bully repeatedly flagellates Xiao Yu with a stack of money, while she, unwilling to back down, repeatedly turns around in rapid flurries of hair, glaring him in the eye. As we can see, in this age where money calls the shots, human dignity of those without money is trodden all over. When the poor have no means to express their sense of hopelessness and futility, they turn to violence. Despite all their bestial cruelty, the director wants to show us that their actions are backed by human reasons - that the roots of violence burrow much deeper than they immediately seem.
The madness of society is crystallized in the club scene. In a ringing satire, the director illuminates our distortion of China’s cultural legacies in the process of commercialization - the patriotic tune of the Communist anthem precedes a marching band of teenage girls in revealing army costumes; the Chinese Opera costumes are turned into bikinis worn by prostitutes. The director himself plays in this scene, casually purchasing a Xu Beihong (a Chinese art master) piece over the phone while he smokes a cigar and wolf whistles at young ladies. While these scenes are undeniably funny, a current of tragedy runs underneath. As Lianrong reads the news on her iPad, Xiao Hui’s eggs her on to “retweet” it. The conversation goes as follows:
F: Oh my god, a government official was found to have 170 LV bags in her apartment.
X: Why would he need so many bags?
F: That’s because he’s a she.
X: Oh. (pause) Retweet it.
F: What should I write?
X: Ta Ma Di! (WTF!)
(she goes on scrolling)
F: Jesus, a train in Wenzhou has been derailed!
X: Retweet it!
F: What should I write?
X: Ta Ma Di! (WTF!)
While Ta Ma Di is undeniably a comical reaction, it is also an apt, and tragic one - what can be said about it, really? When money is morality, how futile are words! The phrase captures a comic defenselessness that tickles the audience in the stomach and bowls them over - in laughter and sadness.
A Touch of Sin is no doubt a cinematic masterpiece. Not only does it reflect social issues, it is also deeply human. While it is widely receptive in Europe and North America, whether it will pass through administrative barriers in China is still an issue. All the while, I hope this will reach the eyes of the Chinese people, as it is a deeply moving film with emotional resonance that will no doubt reverberate within the audience, and hopefully shake the Chinese people to their senses.