Jia Zhang-ke’s latest feature, A Touch of Sin, collects four stories of deadly violence that transpire across mainland China, and though they’re presented serially, only in retrospect did I realize how discrete each was from the others. A character from each episode crosses over briefly into the next, giving the sense of a continuous narrative, and visually the stories are unified by the striking landscapes and cityscapes, which create a larger sense of the continent. What really knits these stories together, though, is the strong geopolitical slant Jia brings to his films. Movies like The World (2004), about the down-and-outers staffing a Beijing amusement park with an international theme, and 24 City (2008), about a factory in Chengdu being torn down to make way for luxury properties, are most valued here in the West for their glimpses of a changing China, their acute observations of predatory global capitalism. I always come to Jia’s movies expecting a large story writ small.
A Touch of Sin lives up to this expectation to some extent: the first episode involves a village malcontent clashing with corrupt local politicians, and the last focuses on a young man bouncing from one dehumanizing job to the next. The movie seems even more deterministic because the stories are similarly structured, each with an intimate and revealing dialogue scene near the midpoint and a shocking eruption of violence at the end. Yet considering the four protagonists in shorter, more compact time frames heightens our sense of them as individuals, and their impulsive actions remind us of the power of human agency. Jia has a tendency to use characters as pieces of a mosaic, but some of the pieces here are so sharply defined that they take on a life of their own, resisting any sort of easy political interpretation. Nothing could be more revealing of a person than what causes him to snap.
Jia opens with the most willful of the four: Dahai (Jiang Wu), a bearish former soldier, still wears his army overcoat as he tools around on his motorcycle, and with his glory days behind him, he seethes over political graft in his little village of Wujinshan. The state-owned mine anchoring the village has been sold off to a private firm, the Shengli Group, whose owner drives around in a Maserati, while the village chief, who pocketed a hefty kickback, has just bought himself an Audi. When Dahai announces to two friends at the mine that he’s going to report this scam to the Discipline Commission in Beijing, they warn him not to mess with the Shengli Group. “There’s no justice!” Dahai shouts, rather foolishly, after a woman at the post office tells him she needs a complete mailing address to accept his letter to the commission. At the local air field, wealthy Jiao Shengli lands in the private plane he’s just bought in Hong Kong and is welcomed by a group of villagers who’ve each been promised a bag of flour for showing up. After Dahai hurls accusations at Shengli, one of the executive’s thugs beats the soldier about the head with a hand shovel, sending him to the hospital.
Dahai is humiliated, especially after a leather-clad Shengli lieutenant shows up in his hospital room and forces some cash on him. The soldier visits his sister in a neighboring village, and their conversation reveals the admirable and not-so-admirable emotions that fuel his vendetta. On the one hand, he genuinely resents the unfairness of the villagers having lost their interest in the mine. “You never think about yourself,” his sister tells him. “Your life belongs to you. Stop caring about what others do.” On the other hand, he went to school with Shengli, and some people see the soldier’s outrage as simple envy; even his sister has more respect for his enterprising enemy than for him. The last straw falls on Dahai as he ambles through the village square and hears himself mocked from the stage of a little street theater as “Mr. Golf”—his new nickname now that he’s been knocked around like a golf ball. The same villagers he’s been trying to help all turn to laugh at him.
With his stubborn sense of duty, Dahai shares a good deal in common with Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao), the young single woman at the center of the third episode, whose selfless devotion to a married man earns her a brutal beating too. She and her lover meet at a roadside diner, where he’s just disembarked from a bus; she’s hired a limousine so they can have a private rendezvous before he connects with a train to Guangzhou. They’ve been together for years, and she wants a baby, but he keeps procrastinating on his promise to leave his wife. Xiaoyu works in the red-light district of Yichang, greeting customers at the Nightcomer Sauna, and a snake charmer’s stand on the street outside lends an eerie aspect to the setting. When Xiaoyu arrives at the sauna that night, her lover’s enraged wife appears with a couple of thugs, one of whom picks up Xiaoyu by her collar and belt and launches her into the side of a car. She flees, taking refuge in the snake charmer’s upholstered, colorfully lit van, serpents slithering around her feet.
As with Dahai, Xiaoyu’s humiliation is complicated by other roiling emotions: a TV broadcast brings news that her lover’s train has collided with another train along the rocky terrain of Wenzhou, the death toll estimated at 35. With no word from him, she returns to the sauna the next night, and Jia subjects her to another ritualized punishment, this one from two male customers who encounter her in one of the back rooms and insist that she service them. “I’m not a prostitute!” Xiaoyu shouts. “Go home to your wives!” Trapping her in the room, one of the men shoves her down onto a couch and uses a stack of bills to smack her in the face over and over and over again. “I have money!” he bellows. “I’ll smother you in money!” The beating goes on forever; in its sheer emotional brutality, it’s the most pointed critique of capitalism in the movie, and for Xiaoyu it turns out to be one degradation too many.
Compared to these two characters, the protagonists of the second and fourth episodes are simpler personalities, though the second story seems almost mythic as a result whereas the fourth and last flattens out into agitprop. This final chapter centers on Xiaohui (Luo Lanshan), a slight young man who works in a Hunan laundry until he causes an accident that leaves another worker wounded; his implacable boss decides to garnish Xiaohui’s wages to pay for the other man’s sick leave, so the young man runs away and, through a friend, finds a job in Dongguan as a waiter at a tony nightclub/brothel. Predictably, he falls for one of the hookers, but he can’t compete financially with the rich johns, so he leaves that job too and winds up working in a factory and living in a hellish high-rise complex. There’s a staggering wide-angle shot of the neighboring building as Xiaohui looks off his balcony: row upon row of apartments, with laundry hanging from every unit and lettering up the side of the building that reads “Oasis of Prosperity.”
More intriguing is San Zhou (Wang Baoqiang), the tight-lipped protagonist of the second (and shortest) episode. Actually, he makes his first appearance in the first, roaring past Dahai on his motorcycle during the credit sequence; ambushed on a mountain road by three young bandits, he pulls a pistol and kills them all. The murder remains unsolved for the balance of Dahai’s story, and when San picks up the narrative, he’s boarding a boat for Wushan, where his mother is being feted for her 70th birthday. He bonds with his sister and her little boy, but he’s pretty opaque aside from a pronounced gun fetish; taking the boy to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks, San shoots his pistol into the air to celebrate, and when his sister begs him to stay in town with them, he tells her he’d rather move to Burma and buy a new weapon. Before leaving town he stalks a woman on the street, shoots her in the head, and steals her handbag, though theft can hardly be his motive—in an earlier scene he turned down an offer of money from his older brother. San just gets a charge out of killing people.
Sometimes Jia seems almost obstinate in stressing his characters’ community with one another: the final image in A Touch of Sin is a point-of-view shot from the stage of another street theater, looking out on a crowd of 70 or 80 people. It makes its point, but for me the image that really sums up the movie is that of a horse being relentlessly beaten by its master in the first episode, as Dahai walks past. Hitched to a wagon, the horse just stands there as the man thrashes it, then finally it begins bucking up and down in rebellion and ultimately it flops to the ground in defeat. Jia may be a master of the big picture, but what gets under your skin in A Touch of Sin is the solitary suffering of individuals, punished to the point where they can’t take anymore.