A Touch of Sin is a film by Jia Zhangke (賈樟柯). I’ve only seen Platform (《站台》) by him before, so am unfamiliar with the majority of his work. The Chinese title of the film differs from the English title, in that the Chinese means literally, “fate appointed by the heavens,” whereas the English title has a more Christian ring to it, although I read that it is apparently a nod to the English title of a martial arts film called A Touch of Zen (《俠女》).
The film traces the lives of four separate protagonists, fictionalized versions of real people, whose paths cross only very briefly and indirectly, but who all encounter death in some form or another. The film paints a very grim and realistic portrait of life in contemporary China, particularly for the migrant population and covers the list of problems that are now synonymous with modern China: entrenched corruption, the sex industry and the accompanying HIV/AIDS crisis, skewed morality, exploitation of migrant workers in factories, violent crime and rail safety issues. What stood out most in the film for me, however, was the indifference and acceptance towards violence of every sort within the film. The animal imagery which ran throughout the film seemed to be an ongoing question mark as to whether the protagonists of the film were better or worse off than animals, underlined by a nature program that Xiaoyu watches in the massage parlour which suggests that animals commit suicide, blurring the lines between animal and man in the film.
The real events which are fictionalized in the film were issues that grabbed headlines in China over several years and caused real debate, but Jia is not simply revisiting the media account of events, but rather attempts a more complex analysis of major issues in Chinese society, using these cases as a jumping off point.
The first of the four part film deals with corruption and the petition system, although I could equally say it’s about one man’s arrogance in his moral crusade with what seem to be suspect motives. Dahai is a diabetic who at first appears to be a victim in the system of entrenched corruption that is being perpetrated by the local boss Jiao Shengli, who is the head of the Shengli Group and the village chief, however as the film goes on, Dahai’s persistence in his objection is almost uncomfortable to watch, and I questioned whether he was driven by a sense of justice, or simply by sour grapes and resentment that it had been Jiao and not him that had managed to carry off the scale of corruption. Dahai first aims his gun at a picture of a tiger and then drapes it on his gun – tigers in Chinese culture are traditionally associated with evil – hence the proverb “為虎作倀 (to help a tiger do evil/help a villain do evil), and has been more recently used by President Xi Jinping to represent high-level corrupt officials. Dahai’s taking up of the tiger flag suggested that he is capable of taking up Jiao’s mantle and becoming a tiger himself, whenever he’s ousted the “tiger” in power. I got the sense that Jia Zhang-ke was trying to complicate the situation for the audience with an unlikable and egotistical character – where he could have simply presented a wholly likable character who couldn’t take oppression any longer. We get the sense that Dahai had an opportunity to be happy, as his sister suggests, but his stubbornness in this anti-corruption endeavor ruined it for him. It is this stubbornness which is the fateful “touch of sin” or hubris that brings him down? And what does this suggest about Jia’s view of justice?
Animals act as powerful symbols for suffering people within the film. One of the men Dahai shoots in the film is a man who we see constantly whipping a horse in a previous scene until Dahai stops him by shooting him. What’s interesting in this scene is that the man seems to be just an ordinary peasant – not anyone particularly powerful or influential, which suggests a larger problem with morality in China than just that of a few corrupt men in power, but rather that people at all strata of society – even on the bottom rung, take pleasure in inflicting pain on those over which they have control.
The second section of the film features the story of a killer and robber, based on the real-life killer nicknamed “爆頭哥” (Baotouge) in Chinese, whose real name was Zhou Kehua, who was infamous for robbing people by shooting them in the head on the street. The fictionalized version of Zhou is linked to the image of cows. After he kills a middle aged woman in Beijing, he drives his motorcycle behind a truck carrying cattle and he wears a Chicago Bulls woolen hat. The image of a cow or an ox is common in Chinese literature, an impassive beast of burden – and this is reflected in the fictionalized version of Zhou’s character, in an excellently low-key performance by Wang Baoqiang (王寶強), marking a big departure from his more comedic role as a vulgar nouveau-riche (土豪) character in Lost in Thailand (《人再囧途之泰囧》). The only spark we see in him, is the flicker of pleasure when he witnesses a fight on returning to his hometown. The fight he witnesses is between two friends arguing over a common acquaintance who got infected with HIV while working in Dongguan – a city notorious for prostitution. The scale of the HIV problem in China is only now beginning to come to light and the stigma of the disease in China is shown in the irrational violence that the discussion causes. At the same time as portraying the callousness of the killer, the film paints a more nuanced picture of the different demands weighing on him and humanizes him by revealing the context of the choices he’s made in life. Violence features heavily in the film, but there is little shift in the tone whether it is the slaughtering of a duck the beating of a horse, a woman shot in the head, or violence against people – which adds to animalization of the characters in the film – whether its the Dahai, Baotouge or the other two characters portrayed in the film.
The third section of the film features the story of a woman, based on the story of Deng Yujiao, who was working as a receptionist in a massage parlour and kills two corrupt local officials who attempt to rape her at work. In the film she is the mistress of a Taiwanese factory owner, who refuses to leave his wife. Many Taiwanese factory owners are rumored to have families on either side of the strait. The woman is associated with a green snake in the film, which suggests an allusion to The Legend of the White Snake. The dependence of women on men is highlighted in this part of the film as well as the subsequent and final part and the filmmaker appears to be asking what role woman have in contemporary Chinese society.
The Taiwanese factory owner who is having an affair with the woman in the third section of the film, also appears in the fourth section as the young migrant worker’s boss. The way the China debate is framed in Taiwan often poses the “China is trying to colonize us” lobby against the “we can make money from China’s cheap labour” lobby and the social cost and consequences of the exploitation of Chinese workers by Taiwanese business people in China is often overlooked. The suicides in the Taiwanese company Foxconn’s factories in China, in which workers preferred to die for the insurance money rather than continue working for a pittance, highlighted Taiwan’s role in exploiting Chinese people in pursuit of quick money. The fourth part of the film follows a young man called Xiaohui, who leaves one factory after being forced to work in the place of a colleague who blamed him for a work injury to work in a brothel as a member of the service staff. While there he falls in love with a girl from his native Hunan, but when she rebuffs his naive request for her to run away with him by saying that she needs to look after her child, he goes back to work in a factory – but after he is pursued by the angry former colleague and almost beaten up, then later harassed by his mother who accuses him of spending all his money, he commits suicide. It’s this part of the film that has the only brief nod to religion – when Xiaohui helps his love interest find a place to set her fish free – a Buddhist ritual called fangsheng or Life Release and they buy a statue of Buddha. This becomes an ironic gesture in a way, as we see that neither of them are free in their own lives.
The animal imagery in the film introduces an existential thread to the film and, in the Taiwanese context, it problematizes the binary narrative prevalent in the Taiwanese media of China as threat and China as opportunity.
The film is beautiful and succeeds in rising above an attempt to cash in on news stories that made national headlines with a sensitive portrayal of the difficult choices faced by many Chinese young people in today’s world.