By Christy Khoshaba (Cannes Film Festival)
Although no one knows if former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping did say “To get rich is glorious,” that sentiment has certainly taken hold in China. But what happens to a society when an unregulated drive for personal wealth upends traditional norms? What happens to the less fortunate when people who have money come to believe that nothing else matters?
“A Touch of Sin,” the powerful if uneven new film by highly regarded Chinese director Jia Zhangke, is a corrosive depiction of the New China, an everything-for-sale society still figuring out how to cope with the dehumanizing effects of unbridled capitalism.
Jia, whose 2006 “Still Life” won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, has dealt with the problems of Chinese society in the past, but in a more allusive, elliptical way. Now his concern about the nakedness of the corruption and an increasing trend of individuals resorting to violence out of desperation has led him to modify his style in ways that are both awkward and effective.
Written by the director (who received the best screenplay award at Cannes), “A Touch of Sin” is an omnibus film of four separate but subtly linked stories that take place in different corners of the country and are based on real events that Jia, in a director’s note, says “are well-known to people throughout China.”
The other element that unites these tales is their common theme of characters being driven to the limit of their endurance and taking the moral law into their own hands. In a world where individuals do not foresee a future for themselves, violence may seem like the only option left.
In telling these stories, Jia has referenced two traditional forms of Chinese storytelling. He says he considers “Touch of Sin” to be a wuxia, or martial arts film, about contemporary China (the English title references King Hu’s classic “A Touch of Zen”), and scenes from street performances of Chinese operas appear at crucial moments.
The first story “Touch of Sin” tells takes place in a small town in a coal mining area in Shanxi province, in China’s north, where former miner Dahai (Jiang Wu) makes his home.
A natural provocateur and troublemaker, Dahai is upset about a genuine outrage: The state-owned coal mine, which supposedly belonged to all local citizens, has been sold to a wealthy individual who is keeping all the profits for himself and not paying promised dividends. Mocked and thwarted at every turn, Dahai vows, “I can be more evil than the village chief,” which proves to be no idle boast.
The second and most nihilistic story follows motorcycle-riding migrant worker Zhao San (Wang Baoqiang), who returns home to Chongqing in southwest China for the end-of-the-year holidays. His passion for shooting guns reflects the nature of a might-makes-right society.
Following this comes “A Touch of Sin’s” most evocative episode, starring frequent Jia collaborator Zhao Tao (who is also his wife). She plays Xiao Yu, a woman from central China who works as a receptionist in a sauna. She is having a hard time in general — her longtime lover is refusing to leave his wife — when an obdurate customer demands she give him a more intimate massage.
“I have money,” the man insists, assaulting her repeatedly with a thick wad of bills. “I’ll smother you in money.” The results are not pretty.
The final episode, about a rootless young man (newcomer Luo Lanshan) in Guangdong province in the south who can’t seem to find his footing in this cold new world, is most notable for its depiction of a boggling high-end brothel called “The Golden Age” where prostitutes dress up in a variety of uniforms, including train conductors and soldiers, for the delectation of their wealthy customers.
To emphasize its theme of a society falling apart, Jia’s screenplay not only details these stories but also lets us know about other disasters and outrages, including dozens of people dying in a mine explosion, a deadly head-on train collision and a local official who amassed a staggering collection of Louis Vuitton handbags worth a fortune.
Jia’s visualization of the main stories as modern-day wuxia has led him to add pulpier, less subtle elements to his usual elegant visual style, as well as copious amounts of shed blood. Because this is not business as usual for him as a filmmaker, he is not at ease or at his best in these moments, but there is a way that awkwardness works to the film’s advantage.
It is that ungainliness that emphasizes how important this subject of moral collapse is to Jia: His urgency is conveyed by his willingness not to be at his best to make a point he feels strongly about. What kind of society, he is asking, does this to its people? It’s a question other cultures could be asking themselves as well.
‘A Touch of Sin’
Rating: No MPAA rating
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle’s Royal in West Los Angeles, Town Center in Encino and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena