Guest post: Garrett Dee on Jia Zhangke’s ‘A Touch of Sin’

This is a guest post from blogger Garrett Dee which offers a different perspective on a film I reviewed a little while ago, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin. Check out Garrett’s blog here

A_Touch_of_Sin_poster

Devoid of musical background and utilizing the now smog-covered skies over much of China as its primary color scheme, Jia Zhangke’s most recent film A Touch of Sin presents to the viewer an aggressive portrayal of modern China in which the average citizen fights a sometimes life-or-death struggle for their societal niche. Spanning a series of four short vignettes, each focusing on a single character and based (partially) on real-life events, Jia’s engaging film seems meant to be viewed as a loosely-fantastical interpretation of a Middle Kingdom in which what has been thought of as a  traditionally communal society has become atomized by wealth, power, and frustration.

It is the casual method with which Jia peppers the plot with violence, which is neither discussed or lingered upon for too long a frame, that appears more crucial than the violence itself. I am reminded in a way of the titular character of the novel American Psycho, who intersperses his daily routine with random acts of murder in such a nonchalant way: a killing of a homeless man during a coffee break here, murdering a prostitute before going to a nightclub there, and so on.

Jia’s film’s violence, however, seems to want so say something about his homeland in that very circumspect way that many Chinese artists (see, Mo Yan and company) seem to have perfected given the limitations under which they labor. In most of the vignettes, the characters are only driven to violence after suffering some sort of injustice. This seems in part, though, due to the ubiquity with which violence is dealt out in Jia’s China, the young woman in particular suffering through several bouts of violence with no ​visible reaction from onlookers, who have no apparent qualms about a woman being forcefully thrown against a car and wandering into an inexplicably unattended snake pit.

The exception to this theme of flight from some kind of persecution seems to be the second vignette, the story of the young man returning to his family village to celebrate his mother’s birthday before murdering a woman and bystander in order to steal the woman’s purse. Based on the factual incident of Zhou Kehua, a gunman suspected of murdering nine people before he was finally gunned down by Chinese police in 2012, his acts of brutality appear to be somewhat cathartic, a symptom of the same restlessness that has driven him from city to city in such a driftless manner.

Indeed, this listless mobility weaves into the narrative throughout the final three vignettes and seemed to be one of the strongest unifying themes of the film as a whole. The characters seem to have little compunction against abandoning their place of abode for somewhere new, whether out of necessity or, in the case of the Zhou character, for the sheer desire to be an abandoner of past and family in favor of something new. China is indeed undergoing the largest mass migration in human history, and the way in which these characters constantly reshuffle their lives around jobs and lovers, alighting at their family homes before departing for parts unknown, seems realistic when set in this context.

The order in which Jia chose to place each of these vignettes appears to form a kind of meta-narrative, descending from the high vantage point of characters who proactively seek redress and agency towards a state of utter hopelessness in the face of a bleak future, driving them towards either death or a profound detachment. The final scene, in which the young woman, who we last see as having cut her hair short and fabricated a new identity, stumbling aimlessly through the barren landscape before joining a crowd of blank faces gazing at a puppet show ends the film on a hollow, bitter note.

This is, after all, Jia’s puppet show, one in which he cruelly dangles his marionettes in agony before cutting their strings and smashing them on the ground. In Jia’s version of China, though, the real puppeteers seem to be the most wealthy and powerful, whose fortunes and statuses allow them to not only afford lavish lifestyles in significant disparity from the meager existence of the various protagonists, but also permit them to do as they please with impunity. However, the initial vignette, is an answer to this problem, a fantasy in the style of the 2011 film God Bless America in which J​ia ​gets to have some darkly humorous fun of his own as his protagonist​ sets about​ literally blow​ing the heads off of those who have wronged him.

Jia’s fascinating film serves his homeland up to audiences as a cynical, lawless society in which violence permeates daily life and wealth is the only respected authority until it annulled at the barrel of a gun or the edge of a knife. Jia stays away from explicit criticism of the policies that have led to this sort of situation, but the implications of the desperation and restlessness with which he portrays the lives of his main characters suggest these are but a microcosm of problems on a macro scale.

《天注定》影評 A Touch of Sin Review

touchofsin_website2

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》).

Continue reading

Book Review: Evan Osnos ‘Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China’

ageofambitionThis is a great, accessible read, that offers a map for those interested in picking their way through the minefield of press reports on China, ranging from the “China threat” myth perpetuated by some of the Western press and the “China is the best thing since sliced bread” line served up by China’s state media.

On my first read I felt a little uncomfortable with the same old rhetoric trotted out about China at the start of this book, which set out the argument that China is traditionally a “collective” society in contrast to the “individualist” Western society. The logic seemed slightly confused for me, as the timeline jumped around a bit, citing Liang Qichao’s invocation of Cromwell to illustrate China’s collectivism, and contrasting this to the ideals of Greek society – despite the fact that Cromwell is also “Western”. This became a lot clearer, however, when I heard a Sinica podcast on the subject, which makes the division between wheat growing cultures, herding cultures and rice-growing cultures, and explains that this division is not so necessarily East/West, but also divides different places in China. It also clarified what is actually meant by “individualist” and “collectivist” societies, which may sometimes be slightly counter-intuitive:

Listen to it here:

 

 

This also reminded me of an interview that I had subtitled on the differences between Western art and Chinese art that had sparked a long discussion between me and a Taiwanese friend, when she revealed that she thought there was inherent differences between Western and (ethnically or culturally) Chinese people, whereas I’ve always been in the “people are essentially the same” camp – it’s just about relative conservatism. The interview was with Tim Yip, the art director for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who was talking about differences between Western and Chinese art:

 

 

I thought that it was a little inappropriate to contrast Chinese traditional art or furniture to Andy Warhol and concept art, as if that’s representative of Western tradition, but it sparked an interesting conversation with my friend and Yip raises some interesting points on the role of the artist and of religion in traditional Western art and how perceived individualism and collectivism impinges on artistic expression, although I felt his idea of Eastern tradition sounded a lot like Plato’s plane of ideal forms, despite my friend’s protestations that I just wasn’t understanding spacial dimensions of the Chinese word “境界” – which I think I translated as “aura” but could easily have been “paradigm”.

I’ve regularly engaged Taiwanese friends on the cultural exceptionalism they often use to define themselves, but am yet to find a difference that is greater than the cultural divide between me and my maternal grandmother, although in China I thought that the culture gap was a lot larger. I thought Osnos made an effort throughout the book to undermine this cultural relativism later in the book, however, by presenting a wide range of interesting and diverse individuals throughout the book, and I even suspected that this was a deliberate attempt by the author to undermine this kind of generalization. He actively debunks many of the prevalent ideas about Chinese cultural differences, particularly with the common stories featured in the news about accidents or attacks in China which include a heartless onlooker trope, like in the story about a woman attacked and killed in a McDonald’s across the street from a police station by members of a pseudo-religious organization while other patrons just looked on, or this story about a man in Yunnan who was jeered at and told to get on with it, when he was threatening to jump to his death in Yunnan. This is often attributed to a difference in cultural norms, and I’ve even heard some ex-pats insist that China has too many people for individual life to be of any value. Osnos does a good job of undercutting this trope, with reference to the case of a young girl who was killed in a hit-and-run killing, and whose body was passed over by several people before a trash collector found her and tried to get her help. By fleshing out the story and letting us see that the “heartless onlookers” in the eye-grabbing headline are more human than we’d like them to be portrayed, when he visits them and asked them why they failed to help her:

 

They were conscripted  into a parable, but the morality play did not do justice to the layers of their lives.

 

Indeed, it’s in his descriptions of people, that Osnos gives us some of the most well-crafted lines in the book, like, when describing a dating site founder, he says of her:

 

… she was propelled by bursts of exuberance and impatience, as if she were channeling China’s industrial id.

 

Osnos is very insightful and sensitive in his portrayal of all the people that he presents to us in his book, and they appear completely unvarnished, giving readers an insight into how high-profile figures in the West, like Ai Weiwei are viewed in China. He knows a lot of key figures in China’s art and media scene, which allows him to pepper the book with comments from figures from China’s literary and arts scene, like Wang Shuo and Jia Zhangke, while he still gives equal weight to the Chinese everyman and those whose ambitions were never realized.

There’s an incredible range of facts in the book and lots of interesting detail, which give us the context to decisions announced dryly by the state press, and allow for a more rounded interpretation of the logic and aims of the Communist Party and what dilemmas they face as China continues to develop, along with the ideological impact of the choices they make, like the decision in 2002 to change references to the party from “revolutionary party” to “party in power,” for example.

I was also fascinated to solve a question that I still remember from my third year course in Chinese at Leeds in the UK, when we translated a text with the term “bobozu” (波波族) and there had been a debate as to where the term came from, with one of my coursemates informing us that it was an acronym for “burnt out but opulent,” which didn’t seem very relevant to the China we had left the previous year. Osnos reveals that a satirical sociological book by David Brooks had been translated into Chinese a few years earlier called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and had become a bestseller, “bourgeious bohemians” being the “bobo” or “bubo” in question, although I still like my classmate’s explanation better.

Osnos’ book is also very funny, with little tidbits of information that will have you chuckling, such as night schools teaching Chinese to spit liquor into their tea to avoid getting drunk when out with their bosses and the state-media accusing a Chinese nationalist blogger of being a fifty-center (paid by government to keep the public internet debate in line amongst other funny tales.

There’s also a real insight into the power of nationalism in the book, captured by the author in the words of Lu Xun on foreigners:

 

We either look up to them as gods or down on them as animals.

 

The way tools, such as patriotism, xenophobia and nationalism, are deployed in China, by the state, the media and individuals is highlighted by the author throughout the book, as well as how the state censorship machine really functions on the ground.

A worthwhile read for anyone with even a passing interest in China who wants to understand what China is really all about, and the people that constitute its citizenry. The book is divided into the three sections that are the three things most discussed in references to China by outsiders – “fortune” referring to is now the cliched “meteoric rise” of China’s economy, “truth” dealing with the media in China and censorship, and finally faith, dealing with what people often refer to as the spiritual poverty of China, and how this is rapidly changing as China opens up and people look for something beyond the physical.

5/5 Must read