Tian zhu ding/A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)

It has been a couple of months since I saw A Touch of Sin at a cinema in Paris (La Clef on rue Daubenton), and so my memory of the film is not necessarily fully accurate.

However, I wanted to get down some thoughts on the film ahead of the fantastic-looking Chinese Visual Festival that runs from 8-18 May in London, and which features a visit from director Jia Zhangke to discuss both his early short films and A Touch of Sin.

For, my plan is not to send out spoilers ahead of the film’s screening. Rather, it is to encourage people to attend the screening(s) – since A Touch of Sin is a remarkable film by an important director. And I wish to delineate the film’s importance, as well, perhaps, as its contradictions, in this post.

(I cannot, alas, make the screening – in fact I can only make one film during the whole Festival. Should any readers care to know, I shall be away to give a talk at the Cinemateket in Stockholm, Sweden, for the first part and on holiday/at a wedding in Spain, for the second part of the festival. Even though I have these treats in store, I am still envious of anyone who gets to hear Jia in conversation.)

So…

A Touch of Sin tells four stories, each based on true events, about contemporary China. It opens with a man on a motorbike, Zhousan (Baoqiang Wang), who is held up by a gang of young highwaymen. He kills them with a gun and then rides off – past Dahai (Jiang Wu), who sits astride his own bike next to an overturned tomato truck (it could be red apples).

We then stay with Dahai as he tries to arouse anger in his village against corrupt businessmen, especially an old friend who has become very rich (owning a private jet) while others continue to be poor. So angry does he become that he decides to take getting revenge into his own, soon-to-be-bloody hands…

The film then returns to Zhousan, who has come home for New Year to see his wife and child. He claims to be doing successful work during his migrations, but in fact leads a life of crime (as his early murder of the highwaymen makes clear – more murders follow).

A third section of the film sees a pretty receptionist at a sauna, Xiaoyu (Jia regular Zhao Tao), who is beaten up by the wife and friends of her lover (Jiayi Zhang), before being abused by two rich businessmen (one of whom is also played by Jia regular Hongwei Wang) who mistake her for a prostitute. This insult leads Xiaoyu to exact her revenge on the businessmen.

And, finally, a young factory worker named Xiaohui (Lanshan Luo) quits a job in a clothing factory after an accident sees him needing to pay compensation to one of his co-workers. He joins a friend at a factory in a different town, is found and beaten up by his former colleague who suffered the accident, and commits suicide.

The description of the film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival is as follows: ‘Four people, four different provinces. A reflection on contemporary China: that of an economic giant slowly being eroded by violence.’

While this description is in some senses accurate, I wonder that it is also a bit misleading. It suggests that violence is eroding China as an economic giant, when in fact the film is really about how in becoming an economic giant, China is becoming an increasingly violent place.

And although the violence that we see in this film is both startling and based on a set of true stories, the film also functions at an allegorical level: the major violence perpetrated in this film is by those Chinese citizens who have embraced the get-rich-quick ethos of what we in the West might term neo-liberal capitalism, and who, in adopting this ethos, concomitantly adopt an ethos whereby the rest of the world can go hang. Whereby violence, in the form of exploitation, is enacted on the rest of the world. Humans are deprived of their very humanity and instead are seen as commodities, as economic opportunities, and objects to be disposed of as one sees fit.

A Touch of Sin is vastly more violent than any of Jia’s films to date, even if those other films also chart the disenfranchisement of various members of Chinese society – right from first feature Xiao wu/Pick Pocket (Hong Kong/China, 1997) through to Er shi si cheng ji/24 City (China/Hong Kong/Japan, 2008), Jia’s last fiction feature.

I find this violence interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have written an essay – to be published in a book provisionally entitled Marxism and Film Activism, edited by Ewa Mazierska and Lars Kristensen – on the films Tropa de Elite/Elite Squad (José Padilha, Brazil, 2007) and Un homme qui crie/A Screaming Man (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, France/Belgium/Chad, 2010).

In that essay, I argue that we are entering an era of renewed activism, one that in particular features violence as a response to the injustices of the world – and one in which standing by and observing is no longer justified.

For those who care to note the technical aspect of my essay, I make this argument using the language of Gilles Deleuze and his writings on cinema.

Deleuze argued that his concept of ‘time-image’ cinema featured ‘seers’ – characters who can only watch in the face of the world, and who do not decide to be agential heroes that do violence to the world, something we might characterise as the typical mythos of the American western.

I argue that while the ‘time-image’ might have been revolutionary in its time, perhaps a new ‘movement-image’ cinema of action is being adopted now as a means of resistance against the inequities of global, neo-liberal capitalism – as per the (admittedly problematic) violence of Elite Squad, and as per the critique of passivity in A Screaming Man.

I then use Marx to argue that we should not put time-image and movement-image cinema into a hierarchy; the time-image is often interpreted, in the modern context, as superior to the movement-image, which, in broad terms, we can equate as being the superiority – aesthetically if not commercially – of art house cinema to mainstream cinema (cinema that uses the fast-paced aesthetics of what David Bordwell would term ‘intensified continuity editing’).

To return to A Touch of Sin, I see the film’s violence as being Jia’s own expression of how we have perhaps gone through the time of/for passivity as a response to the intensified spread of neo-liberal capital, perhaps especially in mainland China. So maddening is the onslaught that accompanies it that we are looking at what the Invisible Committee would term a Coming Insurrection; an outbreak of violence so severe that it might bring neoliberal capital to its knees.

Perhaps it is worth noting that the move on Jia’s part is premeditated and deliberate. The film’s title is of course a reference to King Hu’s classic martial arts film, A Touch of Zen (Taiwan, 1971), which tells the story of an artist caught up in a struggle against Imperial conspiracy and domination. That film uses martial arts as a means of resistance against hegemony, with the martial being/becoming an art – with art always being a tool for resistance against domination (art is always political, and art for art’s sake is a bourgeois concept intended to nullify the political power of art). Perhaps Jia considers violence in a similar, contemporary fashion here.

But Jia’s film involves not just a reference to King Hu. Among its rich forebears must surely be included not the western, but the spaghetti western, especially the works of Sergio Leone, and/or a film like Django (Sergio Corbucci, Italy/Spain, 1966). As David Martin-Jones has cogently argued, these films also use violence as a means to express the disempowerment of Europe’s impoverished south, and as a means to try to empower themselves, but not by positing a wholly new, artistic cinema (as happened further north in Europe, for example), but by taking the tropes of a very Western genre, the western, and reworking them for their own ends (perhaps we can argue that the giallo does something similar with horror).

In this way, A Touch of Sin also is part of a tradition that takes tropes of the western in order to give expression to dissatisfaction with the ongoing drive towards global capitalist domination, a domination that historically was itself espoused in the Indian-destroying, nature-taming genre of the western itself.

(I argue in this book that Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2012) might also be trying to do something similar – as might the overwhelming emphasis on revenge in contemporary cinema, with the recent Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, Ireland/UK, 2014), and in some senses, ahem, my own film, Common Ground (William Brown, UK, 2012), being (Christian-influenced?) considerations of how allowing that vengeful violence, of how standing up saying ‘perhaps it is right that you should attack me’ might in turn be a/the bourgeois-but-understanding response.)

The question then becomes, though: does Jia (do all of these films) express a solution to the problem, or only a means of perpetuating it? If (the spectacle of) violence is at the very soul of capitalism, then to give in to violence – even if in ‘only’ a film, albeit one based on a true story – might simply perpetuate the status quo rather than in fact challenging it…

I quote:

as Antonio Negri puts it, “antagonism is the motor of development of the system, the foundation of a continuous resurgence of antagonism each time that the project, the history of capital, progresses,” then perhaps it is only in an inventory of the failed efforts and strategies of human liberation that the forces of oppression can be identified and fought effectively.

This is from Jonathan Beller, quoting, as is clear, Antonio Negri.

Perhaps, then, the antagonism of A Touch of Sin only adds to the progress of capital. Vicious, thought-provoking and heartfelt as A Touch of Sin is, one wonders if Jia has succumbed to a (too-human?) desire for violence in order to endeavour properly to get out of the paradoxes and contradictions of capital – only to fail because antagonism is what capital wants. Indeed, it is not as if the cinema has not commodified violence since soon after its inception – as an early film like The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, USA, 1903) makes clear.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
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