THE VAGUELY THREATENING specter of modern Chinese society is one that—thanks to the country's notoriously restrictive censorship laws—the world rarely gets to see through the eyes of its artists. Covertly recorded videos and grim reports on factory conditions coupled with predictors of impending economic dominance are cold comfort. Director Jia Zhang-ke's A Touch of Sin, then, is an unusual look at life at the bottom of China's capitalist structure, told through four strung-together tales based on real events—all of which end in outbursts of violence. Needless to say, it's not much of a comfort either.
Sin's chapters look at a frustrated activist in a rural mining village; a petty itinerant thief; a receptionist at a small-town sauna/massage parlor; and a young man drifting through jobs in factories and brothels. Spanning provinces as well as characters, each vignette underscores disparities in lifestyle and power, and nowhere does it end well. The fact that Jia has said he considers the film a submission to the wuxia tradition—most commonly attached to martial arts-focused cultural works featuring a working-class heroic figure who quests in the name of justice—makes his indictment of the country's paradigm explicit. (The same goes for the film's bloodshed, which marks a break from Jia's larger body of work, where he is known for more shrouded social commentary.) Jia's positioning of the film within a traditional context is emphasized throughout, with its characters repeatedly encountering traveling opera troupes, ceremonies, and fortunetellers.
Of the four cases examined here, two emerge as the most poignant: In the opening chapter, swaggering Dahai (Jiang Wu) is thanked for his attempts to challenge the businessman who's gotten rich off privatizing a community-owned coalmine—by being beaten with a shovel and mocked by the very people who stand to benefit from his agitation. Bloody and grimly comedic, Dahai's eventual reaction is the most satisfying conclusion within the film. Another concerns Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao), a sauna receptionist in a dangerous long-term relationship with a married man—and who snaps when one of the establishment's patrons demands an erotic massage while whacking her in the face with a wad of cash. It's the film's most powerful scene, not least because of her refusal to cower under the blows, instead turning her face toward her attacker in defiance of each slap.
In interviews, Jia has discussed modern-day China's lack of wherewithal to grapple with the money-driven society that has emerged in the wake of communism and a painful revolution. Religious culture's influence has eroded, and the new generation's desire for independence has disrupted formerly strong familial traditions, leaving people unsure of what to hold on to as they circle the bottom rungs of a system that's designed to keep them there. It's this outlet-less frustration that eventually results in solitary acts of senseless violence. (Say, is this starting to sound familiar?)
If the characters in Sin are meant to be heroes, then the power-wielding, corrupt representatives of business interests are the villains. And while his film's individual story arcs offer some unfortunate resolution, Jia's efforts seem drawn for the simpler purpose of getting the audience to connect the cause-and-effect dots. As for a more constructive, long-term reaction? The future—in A Touch of Sin, at least—is bleak.