Long a favorite on the festival circuit, the Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke is poised to make a splash with his powerful chronicle of social inequities in contemporary China, A Touch of Sin. Towards the end of Jia’s film (which premiered Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival and is one of the surest bets to win the Palme d’or), workers at a sex club are taught to proclaim: “Distinguished Guests: Welcome to the Golden Age.” This 133-minute howl of despair confirms, with a mixture of absurdist humor and events appropriated from notorious actual incidents, that, instead of enjoying a Golden Age, Chinese society is plagued by random violence, sexual assault, and the rage of millions of disgruntled workers.
Neither an upholder of the status quo nor precisely a dissident, Jia, who started his career as an “underground” filmmaker making unauthorized features, now works within the system—even though he clearly enjoys testing its limits. While his earlier films were meditative and often peppered with whimsical interludes, A Touch of Sin is notable for its anger. A four-part structure conveys the rampant disaffection that lies beneath the veneer of China’s economic dynamism. An infatuation with guns also suffuses the first two narratives: a chronicle of a miner who wreaks revenge on smug, corrupt village leaders and the story of a migrant worker who hopes that a firearm can negate his problems with pull of a trigger. The third sequence, featuring Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and favorite actress, builds to a powerful crescendo as a receptionist at a spa fights off a rapist with bloody consequences. The final sequence is by far the most sardonic, as well as the most despondent: a hapless worker goes from job to job without any hope of advancement. His woes, which include a grueling regimen at a sweatshop and performing mindless tasks in the service economy, seem to sum up the fate of millions of Chinese workers who have few outlets for their grievances.
As the film scholar Tony Rayns points out, the title evokes A Touch of Zen, the King Hu martial arts classic. According to Jia, many martial arts films “have a political thrust...[One] basic theme is repeated over and over again: an individual struggle against oppression in a harsh social environment.” It now remains to be seen whether A Touch of Sin, which seems like an audaciously critical film to Western eyes, will achieve wide distribution in China. If Jia’s social commentary proves too potent for the authorities, Chinese film buffs will certainly have access to it via pirated DVDs or digital downloads.