A Touch of Sin

Netflix Instant Classic: A Touch of Sin

Genre: Foreign, Action, Drama, Indepenent

What’s it about? People grappling with varying forms of corruption in China.

Who’s in it? Wu Jiang, Baoqiang Wang, Tao Zhao

You’ll like it if… you can handle subtitles and moderate violence. If you’re curious about China. And if you like good movies.

China has always been a mysterious country. Whether it’s behind a great wall, within the confines of a forbidden palace, or cloaked in the shroud of bureaucracy, China’s inner-workings are always obscured from view.

Centuries of invasion and exploitation have left the country notoriously distrustful of outsiders. China is decidedly introverted – a characteristic that’s been exacerbated by its autocratic leadership.

So it’s fascinating, and in a sense comforting, to see the kind of vulnerability laid bare by A Touch of Sin.

The movie’s brooding atmosphere, violent and sexual overtones, and critical view of public policy got it banned on the Mainland.

But its rich characters, robust storylines, and forceful direction got it nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, with director Jia Zhangke winning the award for Best Screenplay. (Both the movie and Jia could have won an Oscar, too, but it wasn’t eligible since China banned its official release.)

 I didn’t know it before I saw this movie, but Jia is a big deal.

Another one of his films, Still Life, won the top award at the Venice Film Festival. He’s a subversive force China, a country that takes its censorship very seriously.

Rather than present an idealized version of China that Beijing wants people to see, Jia focuses on a more authentic depiction of life in the world’s fastest developing economy – specifically the alienation and disorientation felt by so many Chinese people.

A Touch of Sin divides its focus among four main characters, all of which are driven to violent acts, and in some cases, ends. They’re mini-tragedies that play out against the grim backdrop of a rapidly industrializing nation. (All of them are based on real-life incidents.)

At a small coal-mining village in Shanxi, the air is rife with both soot and corruption. Government officials operate on a plane separate from the local workers. They fly high in private jets, soaring over motorcycle taxis and train wrecks.

In Dongguan, wealthy businessmen choose from a buffet of high-priced prostitutes, while factory workers down the road churn out cheap clothes and iPhones.

In each case, the gears of cold, mechanical progress grind on, lubricated by human blood.

It may not sound like there’s much in common with the U.S. experience, but in truth, the stories are eerily familiar. If it were cast with white, English-speaking actors, it would be easy to picture these stories unfolding in the United States or Europe, as opposed to China – a country that is considered an ascending power that will inevitably challenge Western hegemony.

At its core, this movie is about a country whose social and political structures struggle to keep pace with the evolving desires of its people. It’s about a population of farmers-turned-factory workers-turned consumers. It’s about people overwhelmed by the stress, indulgences, extravagance, disparity, and violence that money can bring.

It’s about the high human cost of wealth.

These stories play out so graphically, with such humanity and vulnerability, that by the end, China doesn’t seem so mysterious at all.

It seems shockingly, disturbingly familiar.

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