Monday, April 21, 2014


Despite winning an award for best screenplay at last year's Cannes Film Festival, writer-director Jia Zhangke's latest picture has not yet gone into general release in the People's Republic of China, where it was made. Like Iran, China is okay with its world-class filmmakers reaping praise and possibly profits abroad, yet remains very careful about which of its world-class films its own people can see. Jia is one of China's most highly-regarded directors, and Touch of Sin is his first film to have serious censor trouble in some time. This was probably inevitable for at least two reasons. Jia's subject is corruption, inequality and exploitation in modern Chinese society. These subjects are not entirely ignored in Chinese media -- the PRC is no longer the utopian la-la-land of Maoist propaganda -- but the government still strives to control the conversation. To put it in terms familiar to readers of this blog, Code Enforcement still prevails in China, even if it's not as restrictive as in the past. But if Jia's subject is controversial, his presentation is a further provocation. A Touch of Sin is an extremely violent film, perhaps unprecedentedly so for Jia. Chinese censors are squeamish about violence, and in going for the gore Jia may have thought he was giving both himself and the censors an out if problems arose. Everyone might say that the film's been held back because it's simply too violent, so the government isn't censoring critical discourse and Jia isn't as politically damaged as he might be otherwise. Presumably Jia goes on to film another day. Meanwhile, the rest of us get a grim portrait of idealism gone sour -- an opposite extreme from the murderous fanaticism of a half-century ago -- whose critical elements are nearly overshadowed by its visceral sensationalism.

A Touch of Sin is a sort of anthology film made up of four episodes (plus a prologue) loosely based on actual events. Each episode builds to an outburst of violence. The prologue has a motorcyclist confronted by three highwaymen, only he's the guy with the gun. The first actual episode sets a high bar for the rest of the picture. A local Party leader has privatized some collective property and a disgruntled local (Jiang Wu) thinks the rest of the community hasn't gotten their fair share of the proceeds. He grows monomaniacal and paranoid about it. He confronts the leader at an airport and is beaten down. He wants to inform the central leadership in Beijing about this apparent corruption but can't get his letter mailed because he doesn't know the address of the leadership compound. Naturally he assumes that the poor postal clerk is part of a conspiracy against him. Finally he goes on an amoklauf through his town, blowing away the bureaucrats and toadies who've oppressed him, but also blasting a man who seems to have nothing better to do than flog the horse that draws his wagon. It's startling to see Jiang stroll through the streets unimpeded, his rifle hardly concealed by a blanket; it's as if the Chinese, some of whom watch him march past them, simply can't imagine someone going on an American-style rampage with a gun, though everyone in the country is painfully aware of a spate of knife rampages that make the recent episode in a Pennsylvania high school look literally like child's play. Jiang Wu is a powerful presence and his lethal walkabout is a showstopper in the first act that Jia is hard pressed to top.

Perhaps to give us a breather, the second episode is the slightest, with a young man going to the big city to kill and rob. Jia's back at full strength for the third episode, which gives us the poster-art moment above. A woman gets dumped by her boyfriend and gets an unwelcome proposition at a sauna-hotel. Jia builds up to her explosion in Scorsesean style as her would-be john lashes her face repeatedly with a wad of yuan bills, boasting of his wealth and figuratively threatening to rape her with it. She finds a knife and guts him, then makes her way out of the place as people recoil in terror as she unconsciously or self-consciously strikes menacing poses with the knife. For all the film's violence, the money scene is literally the film's money shot, the one I'll remember for the way it goes on forever, to the point when the victim may be the last person to snap. It puts across as well as any moment in the movie Jia's apparent point that something's got to give if things keep going the way they are.

The final episode is anticlimactic only in the sense that it lacks the cathartic violence of the first and third stories. In this one a textile worker quits a job after his small talk is blamed for a colleague's accident and he's forced to pay the colleague's wages while the latter recuperates. He finds work as a waiter in a swanky hotel catering to the Chinese elite. This episode may have been the most offensive to the government since it suggests a wholesale betrayal of revolutionary ideals. A gaggle of showgirls -- or are they hookers -- parades through one suite in sexed-up Red Army (or are they Young Pioneers?) costumes as a military march plays. One elite customer demands that a hooker dress up as a train conductor rather than a nurse before giving him a blowjob. Our hero, meanwhile, suffers from hopelessness rather than outright victimization. No fantasy of revenge for him: instead, he jumps off a balcony, and Jia's camera follows him, from across the street, all the way down. An epilogue bookends the film as the latest of several exotic religious or quasi-religious figures drifting through the film asks a crowd if they know what sins they've done. Jia closes with a shot of the crowd and the implication that everyone shares the blame for what's become of China.

Throughout, there's an uneasy tension between social realism, with a satiric sting, and generic violence. Jia might have done without so much blood, but he may have thought it necessary to convey the reality of violence. Instead, it makes Touch of Sin look like an action or crime movie and imposes an unwanted, superfluous level of unreality, depending on how you see movies. Worse, the unreal perspective that allows us to follow the suicide all the way down until he plops on the pavement will make the scene look unintentionally funny to some viewers. Regular readers should know that I don't have any problem with extreme violence or gore in movies, but some movies don't need it, and I think Touch of Sin is one of those. I get that Jia is warning his country that people are going to keep snapping and that more violence is coming. But the way he presents the violence makes it look like an end unto itself rather than the consequence of the corruption that's his actual subject. Is it a film about a corrupt society or a film about crazy people who kill? Some viewers might be hard pressed to answer. Jia may have meant the violence as exclamation points, but they end up blunting somewhat what remains a forceful portrait of a society in crisis. The Chinese government may feel antsy about it, but I suspect that when foreigners watch it, wherever they watch,they'll be thinking less about China than about how familiar these injustices seem.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

I much appreciate the political context that has prevented the film from gaining a release in the home country. I've seen it and was most impressed with the stylistics.