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'A Touch of Sin:' Capitalism Breeds Violence in Jia Zhangke's Chinese Film

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By Carman Tse

Long an arthouse favorite for his slow, contemplative cinema about the seismic changes in modern Chinese society, Jia Zhangke’s latest film itself a grand shift in his own personal style but remains faithful to the truths he wishes to portray. A Touch of Sin, winner of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, focuses on four intertwined tales that show the toll of capitalism and globalization at the personal level in contemporary China. Unlike previous efforts from Jia, these four tales all conclude with graphic, Tarantino-like violence.

Each of the four stories portrays violent outbursts that serve as emotional release from the clamps that breakneck economic growth has put on the Chinese populace. In the first section, disgruntled roughneck Dahai (Jiang Wu) embarks on a Django-like shotgun massacre to root out local corruption. His murderous rampage serves as a cinematic outlet for the resentment shared by the majority of the Chinese population, disgruntled with the corruption that many feel runs rampant. In a later section, a masseuse (portrayed by Jia’s wife and regular Zhao Tao) gets her own revenge on local politicians who try to take advantage of her—both financially and bodily—with a fruit knife. The violence is portrayed stylishly, breaking from the realism Jia’s body of work is known for. Dahai’s shotgun is draped with a badass tiger banner and Zhao’s Xiao Yu wields the knife with the mastery of a kung fu master. But unlike typical action movies, A Touch of Sin’s violence isn’t incessant but instead comes in bursts that break the tension; a tension pent up from years of being under the market’s heel.

But not every victim of violence in A Touch of Sin is a profiteer killed at the hands of the righteous proletariat. An inversion of this comes in Zhao San (Wang Baoqiang), a motorcyclist in a Chicago Bulls beanie and a ruthless highway robber who makes the most of his pistol. If Dahai’s massacre is the realization of Mao’s proverb that “Political power grows from the barrel of a gun,” then the wandering Zhao San is the capitalist perversion. In the final story, Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) is a young man working at a manufacturing plant driven to his wits’ and bank account’s end who commits the ultimate act of violence upon himself.

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A Touch of Sin is Jia’s most audacious and bold film to date. Where in his previous work, the truths would reveal themselves in an austere, subtle manner, here they come with the fury of each of Dahai’s shotgun blasts. At times the film is over the top, but Jia claims each section is based on a real life story from recent outbreaks of violence in China. American audiences may find the last story familiar, based on the Foxconn suicides. Whether or not Jia’s cinematic violence in A Touch of Sin speaks truth to capitalist power or merely comes off as pure cynicism depends on the individual viewer. It at least stands on its own as a howl of frustration from the second most-populous country in the world; one that rarely reaches American movie screens.

A Touch of Sin opens tomorrow at Laemmle’s Royal (West L.A.), Town Center 5 (Encino), and Playhouse 7 (Pasadena).

Carman Tse is a native of Northern California but not one of Those Guys that hates on Los Angeles (despite his affection for the Giants over the Dodgers). When he's not sharing long-winded thoughts on movies, he's probably sharing long-winded thoughts on baseball or reading about weird sea creatures.