Published on December 13th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant


A Touch of Sin

If you’re at all interested in economics, anthropology, or sociology, the sweeping transformation of China is a fascinating phenomenon, in that China has become something of a wild west.  It’s a place where there is vast opportunity and growing wealth, but like the American frontier, it’s also a place where poverty, corruption, and violence can more easily go unchecked.  The difference is, that China’s story is unfolding in real time, in a modern, connected world.  A Touch of Sin is Jia Zhangke’s angry new film, about this change in China, telling four stories that were based on real incidents that became well known on the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo.

The movie is divided into four parts that each take place in different provinces of China; an livid miner mutinies against the corruption of his village leaders; a migrant worker at home for the holidays finds that he can get what he wants with a gun; a receptionist at a sauna is assaulted by a rich client; and a young factory worker bounces around from job to job, trying to provide a proper life for himself.  A Touch of Sin was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year (and won best screenplay).

The title is a nod to 1971’s A Touch of Zen, one of the most significant wuxia films of all time (Wuxia is a Chinese genre that showcases martial arts heroes).  However, while the movie was influenced by wuxia, it seems to only be riffing on it in very specific ways.  Wuxia often features people living in more ancient times, with more supernatural elements to the stories, and of course, martial arts.  None of these things apply to A Touch of Sin.  However, what does apply is the idea that in wuxia stories, people are being faced with societal change, or situations that push them into violent situations.  This is at the crux of A Touch of Sin — it’s a meditation on today’s China, an economic juggernaut with a mammoth population that is ill prepared for change, slowly being pushed to violence.

The film postulates that vast wealth (or lack thereof) has wrought a huge divide in Chinese culture and the vulgarity of money leaves a stink on people that they can’t wash away.  There’s a key scene where the woman in a sauna is literally beaten with a stack of money because she won’t consent to intercourse with a wealthy customer.  “I have money,” he screeches, almost as if he doesn’t understand that her dignity is not for sale.  When she takes matters into her own hands, the situation erupts into brutality — the only currency the powerless ultimately can have control over.  Lashing out becomes the only outlet these characters have to affect change, to grasp justice in their hands, or even just to gain some semblance of control over their lives, even for just fleeting moments.

I’m not usually a huge fan of anthology films, because they rarely fit together well, but this one works.  Complex information and societal systems are broken down to a ‘show, don’t tell’ mode of storytelling, where instead of the filmmaker standing on a soapbox preaching, we glimpse what is happening through the lives of these characters.

It’s surprising that this film was shown in China, as the Chinese are famous for their film censorship.  In fact, American studios have had to create different edits of Hollywood movies for China alone or they wouldn’t pass muster with the censorship board; in Men in Black 3, a scene was cut simply because Agent J uses the mind-wipe tool on some people in Chinatown, causing speculation by censors that it might have been a comment on propaganda in China.  Because the stories in A Touch of Sin are so well known in China, it seems that censors didn’t think there was need to stifle them.  However, it’s not the stories themselves, it’s the masterful way Jia Zhangke puts them together to make a statement.  It’s almost like the censors didn’t see the forest for the trees, and the elephant came trampling into the room, knocking over lamps and leaving footprint in the butter.

Some have called this an action movie, but I disagree.  Through most of the running time, the film is a brooding deliberation of everyday people walking through their sad lives, and just in brief moments does it erupt into bedlam and carnage.  Sure, it has moments of action (and really well-staged action scenes, at that), but this isn’t light, guilty pleasure rock em’ sock em’ entertainment to be devoured — it’s a substantial meal, full of thought, ideas, and some stellar filmmaking.  It’s not that A Touch of Sin doesn’t have some bald spots here and there, but it succeeds because it’s such a smart way to look at a subject that’s almost too big to wrap one’s head around the ins and outs of without going crazy.

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About the Author

is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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