Jia Zhangke’s staggering “A Touch of Sin,” blends fiction with four stories (three murders, one suicide) “ripped from the headlines.” And Jia citing the films of King Hu says, “I’ve drawn on inspiration from wuxia pian (martial arts) to construct these present-day narratives…of individuals’ struggle against oppression in a harsh social environment.”
In 21st century China, physical dislocation (as rural dwellers are moved into instant mega-cities) and enormous economic disruption breed emotional upheaval. While many struggle, a few fly in private jets (disembarking weighed down by supersize Chanel bags). Social support systems splinter, families are broken apart as members find work in “international” factories, days’ travel from home.
Zhangke’s four stories of desperation and violence are set in different, far-flung Chinese provinces and towns: Shanxi in the north; Chongqing, in the southwest on the Yangtze; Hubei, in the interior; and Dongguan in Guangdong Province, China’s “free-enterprise” zone where factories and dormitories for the workers sprout from the fallow fields.
Moon-faced Dahai (Jiang Wu), a coal miner in Shanxi, frustrated by the rampant corruption of a local boss, is badly beaten when he confronts him at the small local airport. Partially recovered but with a dirty bandage circling his head from hair to chin, Dahai goes on a rampage, killing the town’s accountant and wife, the village chief and his assistant, and confronts the boss, shooting him in his pristine Maserati, blood as vivid as lacquer, coating the creamy butterscotch leather interior.
A disaffected migrant worker, Zhou San (Wang Baogiang), wearing a black wool cap with a Chicago Bulls logo and a pompom, having killed three bandits on the highway who tried to steal his motorcycle, arrives home for the New Year and his mother’s 70th birthday. Emotionally estranged from his wife and young son (and himself), he grows restless (“the village is boring”), uses his pistol in a murder/robbery and boards a bus.
Beautiful Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao), longing for a better life, gives her married lover an ultimatum and rather than traveling with him, as planned, returns to her job as a receptionist at a sauna. Attacked by a wealthy customer and fearing rape, she stabs him. Unable to stay in Hubei, she leaves for Shanxi, attends a job fair and is roughly interviewed by Boss Jiao’s high-maintenance wife, now head of Shenglei Group.
Bouncing from factory to factory, Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), young and rootless, decides to try the work at a large, shiny nightclub and falls for a pretty dancer/sex worker. And although she returns his affections, she rebuffs his offer to marry and create a life elsewhere. He returns to the last factory complex–“Oasis of Prosperity” lettered big on a building–and leaps several stories from a balcony.
“A Touch of Sin,” which had its U.S. premiere at NYFF51, opens today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center. Director Jia Zhangke in person at IFC for a Q&A after 7:00 pm show, intro only at 9:35 pm.
*Refers, of course, to the closing line of the great director (and a good friend of my good friend Bruce Goldstein) Jules Dassin‘s 1948 enigmatic police procedural, “The Naked City” (which in turn had taken its title from Weegee’s 1945 body of work). As of October 3, the population of China is 1,360,270,000.