|Wu Jiang makes his point in A Touch of Sin.|
«««½ A Touch of Sin. Written and directed by Jia Zhangke. DVD release on March 18, 2014.
It's no secret that the Chinese take the US as the standard by which to measure their emergence as a world power. That emergence isn't confined to skyscrapers and stealth fighters: Chinese fast food consumption (and obesity) are rising, and everybody seems to want a car to eat their burgers in, too. Troublingly, there are also signs that US-style gun violence is also becoming more common there, despite some of the harshest anti-gun laws in the world.
In that context, Jia Zhangke's remarkable A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) may be one of the most provocative films to come out of China in years. Its virtues haven't been lost on foreign audiences. Zhangke's film made the short list for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and won the award for Best Screenplay. Alas, it is a touch too provocative for Chinese censors: as it makes its premiere in Ithaca this week, Zhangke's film has still not been cleared for release in mainland China.
The thing starts with a bang. A spooky guy on a motorbike (Baoqiang Wang) is accosted on a remote highway by a trio of ax-wielding thieves. He reaches into his jacket---apparently to get his wallet—but pulls out a gun instead. He blows all three away with extreme prejudice, then calmly proceeds on his way. The violent spasm is presented with the unadorned realism typical of Zhangke's other, more placid efforts (Still Life, Platform), lingering particularly on the victims as they expire.
From there, Zhangke's screenplay wends through a handful of stories of people loosely connected by circumstance, but linked by instances of stunning, impulsive violence. We encounter Dahai (Wu Jiang), a rural villager outraged by corrupt local officials who, after failing to get his grievances noticed, takes matters into his own hands. We roundaboutly meet the motorbike guy again, who appears to support his estranged family by robbing people in broad daylight on city streets. And then there's Xiao Yu (played by Tao Zhao, Zhangke's wife), an employee in a massage parlor with a troubled love life that drives her to shocking acts against an abusive customer.
This may not sound very appealing, but Zhangke shoots apparent chaos with such masterly control it's impossible not to admire his craft. Between the killings, his camera takes impassive measure of modern China in much the style that Michelangelo Antonioni looked askance at industrial Europe in the early 1960's. His figures wander a landscape tamed and scarred by massive infrastructure (bridges, bullet trains) that connect people physically, but alienate them socially. Unlike Antonioni's spiritually exhausted Italians, however, Zhangke's rootless characters insist on touching others, be it through the barrel of a gun or the edge of a knife.
Given that China's "communist" regime buys the acquiescence of its people by keeping China growing economically as fast as possible, it's no surprise that the authorities are skittish about Zhangke's film. By suggesting that breakneck growth—without a culture that gives that growth meaning and context—is unsustainable, it calls that legitimacy into question. America isn't the only place where street violence isn't just a private vice. Both here and on the other side of the world, it's a symptom of something widely, and tragically, wrong.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro