One of the best anthologies in years, Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin offers a thrilling, multilayered, and delightfully bitter look at a Chinese economy told from a viewpoint sick of rampant arrogance and greed and openly asks about what an acceptable response to such indifference towards the working class would be. To look at the China Zhang-ke is depicting is to understand that the country’s flourishing under decidedly more relaxed business regulations and laws has come at a price for the country’s large population of skilled workers. With that knowledge in mind, Zhang-ke’s stories of four individuals in situations without possibilities for happy endings, becomes all the more profoundly tragic and humane.
The stories are all loosely connected either directly or indirectly through events happening around them, but the only connection that matters is the social standing of the main characters of each section. In the stunningly realized opening section (following a brief prologue involving characters and situations that set up some of the more concrete connections), a miner named Dahai (Jiang Wu) gets fed up at how town officials have refused to give back 14 years of profits back to the community when they said they would. The mine owner, on the other hand, flies in on a private jet and gets a hero’s welcome on the tarmac where workers are pretty much corralled into genuflecting in the face of the corporate boss’ insouciance. After being beaten down with a shovel for his perceive insolence and trying to speak his mind to power, Dahai snaps and begins a trail of revenge.
The revenge as outlined in this section is a strange, but incredibly poignant one. The grisly, bloody justice being dispensed is coming for a man who’s putting everyone else above himself. It’s a single man fighting for the system that he’s a part of, and yet his own social system seems to want nothing to do with him, often questioning why he cares so much. Viewed through a different lens than the one provided by Zhang-ke, Dahai could be seen as being no different than any run of the mill disgruntled employee, but even in a roughly novella sized chunk of the man’s life, there’s still a profound sense of purpose and an interesting moral quandary posed in place of a full life history.
That similar sense of conviction carries throughout, especially into the possibly more inscrutable section of the film where a migrant labourer returns home for his mother’s 70th birthday. He’s coy about what he does for a living, and he’s trying very hard to look for ways to provide for his family in the face of an incredibly shrinking economy. This section probably feels the least developed because it’s the one where most of the film’s larger connections will stem from, and Zhang-ke rightfully doesn’t want to play every card in his deck on the first hand. It’s the hardest to talk about without spoiling the film almost outright, but it does give one of the best cinematic images of the year of the man in a field with a child at night amid a plethora of fireworks exploding around them in the sky, uniquely symbolic of the film’s smallness in sections and the larger more violent universe around the characters that will bring into question the stability of China for future generations.
The third and fourth movements of Zhang-ke’s film move towards larger stories that outwardly show bitter disdain towards the government instead of merely looking at the specific effects of corporatization. In the third, and best written section, a spa receptionist (Tao Zhao, in the film’s best performance and with the best developed character) finds herself pushed to her limits by pushy abuse and exasperation amid a backdrop that involves an airport construction site shakedown. The film’s look at governmental corruption and advocating of greedy practices are underlines here perfectly through subtext, subplots, and a single brutal scene of degradation that makes the segments ultimate bloodletting cathartic not only because of the specifics of the situation, but as a greater whole. It brings about a point of anger in the viewer that Zhang-ke has been skilfully building towards the entire time.
The fourth and final segment might not seem as go-for-broke as the first and third, but it’s the most pointedly satirical, as a worker (Lanshan Luo), running away for paying for a costly error at his textile job, takes a gig as a waiter at a nightclub for the rich and famous. He foolishly falls for a call girl, which can only end badly for at least one or both parties in most any situation. This section drips with juicy, subtle symbolism. Young women in tight fitting military uniforms are paraded out to rich old men wanting to relive their glory days. The waiters are told to greet all guests with the same phrase in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English: “Good evening, distinguished guest, welcome to the Golden Age.” – a loaded phrase if ever there was one. There’s a running theme involving trains that will serve not only as a symbolic disappointment, but will act as a lynchpin for the rest of the film. It’s possibly the most imminently relatable of all the stories.
It might seem like a strange comparison, but in many ways Zhang-ke’s film played like a paraphrasing of one of the most politically astute moments on The Simpsons when aliens were trying to take over the planet and were struggling to figure out what the proletariat wanted. But instead of “abortions for some, miniature flags for others, “ A Touch of Sin takes the joke one step further and places more of a dramatic spin on it: Prosperity for some, a lifetime of servitude for others. It functions not only as a great revenge movie or multi-plotted thriller, but also as a wake-up call to a country in danger of becoming too decadent to support itself.