© 2013 by James Clark
Having just come away from von Trier’s Dogville (2003), in its installation of austerity so dark that the viewer is required to visit its laboratory-like showroom many times before coming to its Plutonian joys, I’ve approached Jia Zhangke’s latest film as a hit of almost astronomical sensuousness, in the service of that same elusive buoyancy. Imagine my consternation, then, in looking over some commentary about that recent release, to find such a consensus that this film has seen fit to confine its remarkable energies and insights to, like Dogville’s weepy Vera, enjoying a good and bitter cry about the many casualties of free enterprise in China today.
If it is, indeed, all (rather than a touch) about the scandal (sinfulness) of recent Chinese capitalism, why does it provide so many locales of the scruffy and crane-salient fringes of cities undergoing a building boom, which remind us of the settings of Antonioni and Fellini films? Why does the plunge-from-a-building suicide, in its fourth and final segment, of a discouraged man, going from job-to-job, come into some kind of contact with the closing scene of Antonioni’s Il Grido (The Cry)? Antonioni, it goes without saying, was about neither politics nor moralism. Why, in that same concluding episode, do we see a re-enactment, by a young and not unperceptive woman, employed in what is generally covered by the hilarious euphemism, “adult entertainment,” of Alice’s fellatio with Mr. Eddy, in David Lynch’s, Lost Highway? Why is it, indeed, just as involved with the Balthazar motif as is von Trier’s Dogville? Despite what so many contend about Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (2013), it is a truly compelling work precisely because it is not primarily absorbed with Chinese history, but rather with world history.
Though not nearly as apparent as the omnipresent “touches” of callous greed, there is a highlight, beckoning us ever so quietly (as if knowing it won’t matter to many), to this project’s heart. In a cramped but stylish bus one night, a bank robber and mass murderer ignores the movie playing for its inter-city nomads. The romantic, vaguely American strains of its soundtrack touch us for a second or two. And then there’s another little bit of déjà vu, a quick scene of a hand-gun battle, with the projectiles setting off sparks in the darkened battleground, possibly a bar. Some time before this moment, the crime figure on board (but now demanding to be let off at an unscheduled place) has taken us along with him on a motorcycle journey where he’s using his own handgun and where he puts some Neanderthal, axe-wielding highwaymen into complete obsolescence. The movie he would have found too slow-moving is a facsimile of Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels. But just because the punk has no time for Wong and his chic and sad and rich touches, don’t get the idea that Jia is dissing here some kind of precious fancy pants. Sure, he’s setting up an awareness that Wong’s cosmopolitan hipsters and dreamers tend to relish smallish, indoor bailiwicks that could have you subliminally slipping into beholding their sagas (for brief moments, anyway) as playing out in one or other of the North American Chinatowns—the cozy, generic bus in the night almost a metaphor for the intimate orbits Wong favors. But, as we’ll see, the panoramic and crushing presence of A Touch of Sin has been presented in conjunction with a dramatic pulse which situates the graphic odds bearing down on the four protagonists as part of a reflective continuum which includes those more intimate struggles as intuitively privy to a world of intrinsic trouble. (Antonioni’s protagonists, for instance, did not need to be reminded that not merely population on hand but history itself was applying difficult heat. In making conspicuous such comprehensive obtuseness, Jia would not, then, be dismissive, but instead probing what opportunities may be more readily embraced by having specific hordes and their unseen complement intensively in play.) A Touch of Sin will, for another take on the matter, bring us uniquely close to an adversary of immeasurably huge dead weight, such that Grace, hitherto conversant with postage stamp geography, and her tommy gun associates, could never hope to dissolve.
Though from one perspective an almost unrelievedly harrowing narrative, this is a movie that, unlike Dogville and Il Grido, finds a place for fun and funniness, however inflected. (For instance, in the Mr. Eddy vignette, the guy calling the shots, played by Jia himself, is fretful and hypochondriac, directing the girl to suck his nipple.) The first chapter is the sunniest, amounting to a sort of blood-spattered shaggy-dog story. After disposing of the hapless highwaymen, the killer (in a Chicago Bills watch cap, and so making a passenger of Refn’s Driver and his fondness for the far less dominant Clippers) slowly wends his peppy vehicle past more death and destruction on the highway, in the form of an overturned truck with its freight of tomatoes strewn all around. Sitting on his parked, low-powered scooter is the protagonist, Dahai. He almost gets around to eating one example of the stray produce, whereas the donkey, Balthazar, actually does (in Bresson’s film) on the tipping over of an overloaded cart of hay. (Thus the brief drive-by would evoke the ever-menacing, Gerard, a cruel and persistent tormentor of the donkey.) Covering the neighborhood in his scruffy brown overcoat with floppy, donkey-ears lapels, Dahai gives us a long-suffering beast of burden. It takes a while to sink in, but there is a vast other side to Dahai’s affinities to Balthazar. This factor is prefigured at the accident scene by a sudden explosion and fireball which interrupts his snack. In the context of this movie’s surreal additives, it adds up to Kiss Me Deadly and its dolour pertaining to Pandora’s Box, to, that is, boldly maintaining a future (a “more” than what merely obtains) without sufficient respect for the complexities and deadliness therein.
Our protagonist drives his motorbike into his home town, set amidst undulating hills in hazy atmosphere, and we see three graphics to ease us into this anything-but-easy-to-fathom enticement. There is a gateway, in classic Chinese style, ominously severed from any structures or action, announcing, “Black Gold Mountain” (a coal mine that is no more). Moving on to yet another defunct instance, there is a statue of Chairman Mao (as grotty as the dwellings all around); and, then, a crew in the back of a half-ton truck with a big painting of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. The passive servitude implied by these shards seems to somewhat cohere with the promising aspects of Balthazar’s grace. But the repeated flashes of local color in the form of a peasant beating a horse, bleeding at the neck, to its knees would suggest that the malignancy implicit in Pandora’s Box has this little settlement as firmly in its grip as it did in the small venue where the donkey had to contend with lashes delivered by small humans. Along that sightline, one does not, in contradistinction to what Mao and Jesus would contend, become sacred by virtue of being crude. Dahai is a person of interest in spanning both of these elemental initiatives in play here. We soon hear him, amidst soup kitchens and other such gatherings for people with lots of time on their hands, railing against the village manager and a regional overlord for embezzling monies targeted toward the now idle miner/stakeholder population. He marches into the post office with a registered letter to Beijing authorities and yells out, to those on hand, that he has drawn up a detailed accusation against the embezzlers. “They’ll close him down… It will happen!” The lady running the post office refuses to process his proceedings, claiming he has failed to properly address the letter; and this sends the crusader into a rage (“No justice!”) on realizing (once again) that she, like so many others in town, is in on the take. Dahai comes across the boss-man on the street and, after peppering him with complaints that constitute an old story, hears this enemy tell him, surely not for the first time, “You’ve picked the wrong time for a fight… You’ve been a loser all your life.”
The optics thus far could lead us to imagine that he’s a former mine employee desperately needing the cash that might ensue from winning his case. As the vignette unfolds, however, we hear that he studied Law at university for a while, and that he’s perched upon a family endowment that leads a woman, who had tried to match-make on his behalf, to suggest that, instead of rattling around, like an Old Testament scourge, he open a restaurant. In referring to the critic (his priggishness mitigated somewhat by a burly, grubby, salt of the earth demeanor—looking, in fact, remarkably like activist, Ai Weiwei)—as having “picked the wrong time” to get on his hobby horse, the local politico was alluding to the return of the real power in this jurisdiction, a young oligarch who not only has helped himself to public monies to obtain start-up funds for a huge private manufacturing concern located in the district, but also employs a gang of thugs to ensure that no one jeopardize his enjoyment of his trophy wife, executive jet and tasty Maserati. Dahai comes upon a bus headed for the airport to greet that arbiter of wealth, comes aboard and hears that fan club within being drilled to fill the air with, “Boss Jiao! Welcome! Welcome! Welcome! A warm welcome!” On the tarmac, the contrarian waits for the celebrity to come by, he calls out, “Congratulations!” and, while embracing the much feted cool guy in his Gucci shades, demands plane fare to Beijing where he will press charges against him. On cue, he gets smashed by three of the security force—Jiao motivating them to do more damage by mocking their whopping him with batons as if they were playing golf. In the hospital he’s visited by two functionaries who dish out to him bundles of cash. One says, “Case closed!” And back home he’s sneeringly referred to as “Mr. Golf” (perhaps somewhat in recognition of his bourgeois bearing), and laughed at by those in the audience of a painfully archaic outdoor operatic performance (one of the lines being, “…he slew two henchmen…”).
Dahai had spent a pensive night in the hospital after the visit from the bagmen. Now, back home (and face-to-face with a tiger design on a cushion, recalling Balthazar’s defining moment at the circus in beholding wild animals in their cages [one of them being a tiger]) and more acutely than ever sensing his demeaning isolation, he tears off his bandage, loads up a heavy-gauge shotgun, ready to soak up some cogent influx of power by way of splattering the blood of specific targets all over this provincial theatre of dynamics that had denied his (largely inchoate, hyperbolic and archaic) bids on behalf of primal rightness. With that cushion-cover (now about plunging forward rather than leaning backward) now, in fact, a flag braced by his firearm, he slaughters with graphic shock those fat cats and toadies alike, who had only too successfully ushered him across that line marking the hopeful and the hopeless. In blowing away Jiao from the back seat of his Maserati parked at the plant, right after the latter had asked, “How can we fix this?” there is a cut to milky clouds of steam issuing from a tall structure on the compound (giving us a quick hit of Antonioni’s nightmare of impasse, Red Desert) and a quick cut back to the interior of the car, now drenched in unhealthy redness. Dahai, his face and coat splashed with Jiao’s blood, sighs and smiles ever so slightly. His breathing here is decidedly more natural than the quick gasps in face of his first victim, the accountant who had fixed the books and who, underestimating the cosmic forces by which the town pest had finally been possessed, refuses to put in writing the details of the embezzlement and sneers, “You’re too much of a coward to shoot!” Faced with the enormity of pulling the trigger the windbag falters, but not for long. That he was still off course, however, is strongly implied by his immediately turning around and cutting down the accountant’s wife.
En route to shake up the leadership of the booming factory, Dahai comes across that rustic, as usual whipping his horse, and his ordnance lifts the little guy to a spot several yards away. This is a moment that never fails to elicit mirth and cheering from the audience. Let’s consider why. The gunman could have forced the sadist to cease and desist, but only murder could cut it here. Over and above our dismay about the beast of burden, there is a more primordial dismay about those of our species being utterly unforthcoming. A surprising percentage of those who go out can affirm, at a gut level (and probably for no more than a few seconds), that some lives are so grotesquely devoid of traction that their continuation is of no interest at all. All sorts of ideology would promptly muddy any articulation of this stance; but, in coming to this through action alone, our film draws us toward a crushing world historical weight (so generously capsulized by the weight of Chinese history) and dangerous crisis about interpersonal dynamics. (It is precisely the dilemma of Grace at the denouement—hardly a conclusion—of von Trier’s Dogville.) So, cutting away from the sharply discounted Maserati, with many police cars streaming one way and an apparently driverless horse cart moving the other way, we come to the comedic highlight of A Touch of Sin. In a cinematic current that evokes billions upon billions who don’t get it, a moment of truly antithetical laughter is worth a lot.
The episode following this exuberant romp takes us up very close to a figure—the Bulls guy who rode past Dahai when he was in his moral rearmament phase—who is probably even more dead (because clearly more systematically vicious) than the horse abuser. He’s with a crowd of jocular young things on the deck of a boat headed down a river whose valley of gentle hills is exquisitely beautiful, which is to say, calling everyone to love and cherish life. In palpable contrast to the frigid, stormy, rocky domain we have just experienced, there is a warm sun and the river banks are exquisitely green. Someone comes up to him with the friendly question, “You got a light?” And he icily replies, “No.” True enough, the only lights that he’ll attend to are those coming out of the barrel of a gun. He’s soon with his wife and child, but he has said “No” to that marriage some time ago. His showing up has in fact nothing to do with them, but with some kind of superstition about a pilgrimage to his grandmother’s seventieth birthday. (The old lady fixes him with a glare, and his son runs away crying as the ramblin’ man greets him by squeezing one of his pudgy cheeks.) He lights two cigarettes, holds them above his head and shifts around to all four directions. “I’m worshipping ghosts,” he tells his wife, who at that point wouldn’t mind seeing him take a one-way trip out there. She has gone through the motions of asking, “You can’t stay here in the village?” (where lush market gardens fill every expanse along the riverbank—their latent poetry stillborn, as stressed by another dad butchering a duck that his little girl clearly loves—and where this protagonist’s brothers, though anal, do emit honesty and modestly gratifying labors). And, with his baby face pegging him as a perpetual adolescent, he says, “It’s boring.” “What isn’t boring?” she shoots back, indicative of some surprising reflection. And, though he’s almost the prototype of every girl’s nightmare about Mr. Wrong, there is about his crude reply some vague (and of course pointless) attending to that Something Big which struggles throughout to be heard. “Shooting guns isn’t boring.” Taking up an earlier subject, she perseveres, “What will you do in Burma?” “I’ll buy a fast-loading pistol,” is his shortened version of a mission statement. During a fireworks display, he thinks to be imparting to his son precious knowledge about life by demonstrating how his shots into the air are at one with the most magnificent celebration. But, along with his excitement about shooting is the complement of killing, in the course of theft, an instance of which he pulls off in the home town to finance his Burmese ambitions. (In the course of stalking and murdering a conspicuously wealthy couple leaving their bank, this wiry little guy evokes one of Monsieur Oscar’s (Denis Lavant’s) clockwork acts of violence for the sake of epiphanies, in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.) During his cigarette ceremony, he remarks, “The gods were to blame.” In this, of course, he’s hardly the first, or the last, troublesome theologian.
Though Wong, and a cello motif on behalf of gossamer reverie, fills the escapee’s bus, they’re getting nowhere with the (semi-) tough guy; and, now entering the third close encounter with unearthly aspirations, we have another passenger of that bus who was part of that captive but perhaps not captivated audience. The punk had insisted on getting off at an unscheduled juncture (having done some homework about easy pickings). But our new focus joins the regulars sleepily spilling out at a truck stop; and there, waiting for him is a woman who sets off her own angle on Wong’s In the Mood for Love. He wants her to accompany him to a nearby boomtown where he has an entirely above-board commercial interest. She, clearly having been over this terrain many times (he gently touches her temple and tells her, “You’re frowning…”) listlessly asks, “Did you tell her?” “I started,” he wavers. “She [his wife] must have understood.” Somnolently perplexed, she maintains—like the woman in In the Mood, circumspect to a fault—“I accept things as they are. But I owe my parents an explanation… I want a baby…” She cobbles together a six-month period of reflective hiatus, sees him off at his train connection and the ground swallows her up—for the better! His wife has indeed understood and, along with a male relative, she barges into her workplace, The Nightcruise Sauna, and administers a beating that spills out into the midnight streets, where she’s hurled into the side of a parked car. Her name is Xiao Yu, but, with her long pony tail and now bloodied lip, she’s also about Balthazar. In the aftermath of the assault, now the wee small hours, she stumbles upon a hawker in the street with a microphone, offering fertility boosts by way of beholding a trailer truck full of snakes, with a serene woman in charge—Balthazar, once again, at the circus. She visits her mother, hawking vegetables at a nearby airport construction site, and it becomes very clear (Mom not at all wanting to know where Dad is or what he’s doing) that Xiao Yu is the one with the dubious ancestral hang-ups (putting her in the same boat as the superstitious killer [whom so many critics arrestingly portray as a downtrodden “migrant worker”]).
On hitching a ride in the open back of a truck, to and from this construction site, she witnesses a variant of the highwaymen gambit—a pack of goons extorting a toll from the driver (whom they startlingly beat within an inch of his life for asking them to provide a receipt). Two of these lovelies show up at the sauna where she has just completed her shift as a demure receptionist, on the fringes of full-blown carnality. They take a liking to her, and despite her rebuffs, they firmly express the priority of an untrained masseuse. After being repeatedly shooed out of her off-limits area of the centre, they revert to the heavy persuasiveness of their métier, one of them slapping her face many times with the wad of bills he insists she climb out of her ivory tower to recognize being a display worthy of unconditional respect and obedience. Being repeatedly whipped by that paper club and taunted for her stubborn uncooperativeness, she, in profile with her pony tail flailing helplessly, takes us back to the beatings (“stoically,” as Dogville’s Grace would say) endured by Bresson’s donkey. (At the change of shift she cheerfully shares with her replacement the sound bite she’s picked up from cyberspace—“Can an animal commit suicide?”) With this fluff gaining substance very quickly, she suddenly has in hand the knife having been red flagged at the train station—he having asked, “What if I want to peel an apple?” and being told by the no-nonsense, earthy security lady, “Eat it with the peel!”—and suddenly a large part of the attacker’s digestive system is pouring out upon the floor. No longer flaccid and ordinary, she’s in the aura of Dahai and Balthazar’s tiger, a lithe, electrifying kinetic force, smeared from head to toe with the dead man’s blood and flashing along darkened streets and then a highway—where she’s periodically lit up by headlights where no one dares get in her way. She holds her dagger high, at the ready (in face of a sharply discounted world), and on her shoulder is a blood stain in the form of a donkey’s head and neck. She passes two wild monkeys, who do not seem frightened, by contrast with the circus monkey going nuts on seeing Balthazar outside of its cage. A few oxen also seem OK with her. And, then, the suicide clip coming back to haunt her and haunt us, she pulls out her phone, dials a number and says, “I’ve killed someone.”
We next see her, after the fourth and final vignette, having had cut off, by the prison, no doubt, her pony tail, and meekly going through a job interview, where the CEO is a girl half her age and recalls her story. “That’s all behind you now,” she patronizingly purrs. Disheartened, she turns up at Dahai’s village and catches a performance by that old-time opera company. “My tears flow,” the singer declares. In addition, there is, “Do you understand your sin?” Tears fall down her cheeks as she stands amidst a crowd of tourists to that place boasting an ancient fortress, now decidedly overrun (the regulars either killed off or still hiding; we had seen her walking against the grain of that horde—had she found a job in that kick-ass factory?). Then, like Balthazar dying amidst a flock of sheep, she’s gone. Only the sheep remain.
Chapter Four is entirely about sheep. A boy with “Attractive” on his T-shirt, working in a garment factory owned and operated by Xiao Yu’s hapless suitor, distracts a co-worker by fooling around with the latter’s smart phone, thereby causing the phone owner to be slashed by the sewing machine he was operating. The owner tells Attractive he’ll be docked pay to cover the injured one’s lost time for recovery; the kid skips town rather than accept any responsibility and winds up as a server in an entertainment palace, where (sort of like the cheerleaders at Jiao’s touchdown) he’s drilled to say, “Welcome, distinguished guest!” as followed by a low bow. The nocturnal ebb and flow at the club, from the point of view of the kid and a girl he meets and falls in love with there, finds her inured to tacky fantasy routines (for instance, marching with other cute women in a re-enactment of the heyday of the Red Guards, become comfort women). She remarkably musters joie de vivre in going through such paces, thereby evincing a strange, adulterated resilience. He’s another story. During a bit of flirting, she, quite uninhibited grabs his cock and he shrinks from this in prudish shock. He becomes intrigued by her “Buddhist” regime of releasing goldfish into a river. “We need to do lots of good deeds to be forgiven in the next life.” He accompanies her to a fence behind which there are many statues of Buddha, and they (somewhat like the psychopath and his cigarette incense) bow in the direction of those figures. He has bought a small statue of the notable figure and places it on the hood of the rental, after which, inside, it starting to rain, he tells her, “I like you very much…” She tells him, “There’s no time for love in sex work. I have a three-year-old daughter. I have to bring her up.”
Back on the job, he watches as she services Mr. Eddy and then, once again, he skips out. Returning to the city where he cut short his career in the fashion industry, he signs up for a long-term commitment in a food processing firm with a corporate culture akin to a cult (every staffer eating and living within the profit centre compound). The combination of his mother’s phoning to complain he’s faltering in his payouts to her (he was to work the first week for no salary) and a menacing brush with the injured worker he refused to help overwhelms his fragile heart and sense of entitlement to be found Attractive (to be smiled upon and given a readily absorbed good time by the gods); and he jumps to his death from out of the same rigors Antonioni knew to be needing more exposure than they usually get.
A Touch of Sin magisterially dares to leave us with a double-dose of dismaying defeat, confident that the fires it so dazzlingly ignited at earlier points would secure for us, beyond huge odds to confront, huge energies far from smothered. Before her daughter’s brief, shining moment, the knife-fighter’s mother tells her (apropos of her position in the food industry—but apropos of so much more)—“If you don’t know the ropes, you won’t make much money.” Dahai’s confidante reminds him, “Your life belongs to you.” The manslaughterer’s beau remarks that “the small delay at Tiananmen” did not seriously hinder his (and his compatriots’) progress (toward taking full responsibility for bringing existence into something deluxe).