Histories of Violence
By Aliza Ma

A Touch of Sin
Dir. Jia Zhangke, China, Kino-Lorber Films

The epilogue of the four-chapter A Touch of Sin shows Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao) arriving where the film had begun: in director Jia Zhangke’s native Shanxi province. She has shed her long locks—her image transfigured from wuxia warrior to revolutionary heroine—after surviving a gruesomely violent incident in Hubei, and is seeking a job with a large mining company in town. Along with an eerie sense of foreboding, there is a feeling of déjà vu, of doomed fate or tragic destiny (Tian Zhu Ding, the film’s Chinese title means destiny or heavenly fate). A dust storm envelops her figure in a brume of ochre as she walks into the barren landscape. It’s a clue that it’s spring in the region—that formidable “yellow wind,” which swirls in from the northern deserts and migrates south through the country seasonally, overlaying the path taken by many workers in China, and followed throughout the course of the film.

Four tableaux and two book-ends form Jia’s candid portrait of contemporary China, about the tragic injustices experienced by the nation’s underprivileged workers. In the first chapter, it is the sub-Siberian winter months in Shanxi, and a daring mineworker named Dahai (played by Jiang Wu, who shares the same distinct boorish Northern mannerisms as his brother, filmmaker and actor Jiang Wen) is met with apathy by his villagers, coworkers, and mayor when he tries to voice his earnest, if outspoken opinions about the corruption and bribery going on between the local politicians and the mining monopoly in the village—the same company, as it turns out, where Xiao Yu tries to find work later on. As if possessed by the spirit of the fabled terracotta warriors not far away from the mine, Dahai confronts the opaque silence with a violent killing spree. In the second chapter, murder and theft become the last resort for migrant worker Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), who makes the long journey home to Chongqing during Chinese New Year, only to find insurmountable money troubles. In the third, Xiao Yu finds herself threatened by two repugnant petty whistle-stoppers, who are clients at the sauna in Guangzhou where she works as a receptionist. When they will not take no for an answer, and exercise unthinkably contemptuous behavior, she tries to protect her body and pride by slaying the men in a moment of sheer divine force, exhuming the ghost of wuxia warrior Yang Hui-ching (Hsu Feng) in the King Hu masterpiece A Touch of Zen, to which the film’s English title refers. Finally, in the last chapter, a teenage boy (Zhang Jiayi) in Hunan works tirelessly in different jobs in order to send money home to his family, and submits to the mounting social pressures with suicide.

These stories have roots in widely reported events in China over the past five years. To Jia, the overwhelming accumulation of violent incidents reported through news exposition and transmitted through Weibo (Chinese microblog) posts signaled a transition of China’s ever-advancing modernity into a surreal post-Olympics era, in which, perhaps the thin line between progress and catastrophe has been completely obscured. “Our society is at an impasse right now,” said Jia during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, “there is a danger in reverting to feudalist traditions, and we are still recovering from the spiritual damage from the violence of the Cultural Revolution. The prescription of ‘the good life’ is driving people to desperate acts of violence. But it is also a time to propose fundamental social changes.” When the filmmaker could no longer see these violent stories as isolated incidents, but specters of a grim nationwide phenomenon, his response to such a state of emergency was to bring these issues into aesthetic discourse. Thus for the screenplay—which was awarded at this May’s Cannes Film Festival—he culled elements from the most striking of these stories, spanning between 2008 (shortly after the Olympics) to last year, as entry-points to composing his first sui-generis wuxia feature.

Via news or Weibo communiqué (the lines between which seem ever-blurring), a story’s resolution often stands in for the whole picture. There is little discussion of the social, moral, and physical binds that drive these ill-fated individuals to transform from victims to perpetrators of violence. One could say that each of the four stories did “really” occur: “Gu Wenhai, male, mineworker, kills 14 villagers and wounds 3 others,” “Fu Shikang high-rise suicide incident—the factory’s fourteenth case. Motive unknown,” read some of the past news headlines. Meanwhile, Weibo posts varied between attempts to parse social factors and emotional, sometimes incendiary rants. For anyone paying attention to Chinese news within the country or abroad, these real-life events have become commonplace (ask any Beijing taxi driver), but as each new tragedy propels the surface chatter forward, any possibility for deeper, more fixed contemplation seems to get further out of reach. So, with Sin, Jia was determined to adopt a new film language in order to “make an old thing new by detaching it from what usually surrounds it,” to quote one of his formative influences, Robert Bresson.

His new strategy for storytelling? Treat violence with violence. The auteur’s previous films dealt with issues of social change in a more poetic and oblique way: Xiao Wu (1997) and Still Life (2006), for instance, both had an optimistic lining, as they were made during a time when feelings of progress and hope for a better future still dominated. In contrast, A Touch of Sin, his first fictional feature since the 2008 Olympics (if indeed his hybrid film I Wish I Knew in 2010 counts as documentary, or conversely, Sin as fiction), is a necessary experiment in cruelty. Within the historical Chinese modes of storytelling, be it literature, painting, or film, there has always been a taboo associated with portraying violence directly. As a subject, violence has been represented in endless arrays of symbols and metaphors, allegorized and aestheticized, but rarely presented with such shockingly direct verisimilitude. He said during an interview: “Using realism to convey reality and using artifice to convey reality are different means to different ends, and if there had been, say, a hundred-year history of Chinese cinema that presented violence in verité, I would have perhaps chosen a more mediated aesthetic.” Hence, reuniting with adroit cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, Jia brilliantly applies the unique formal properties of the wuxia mode—a film language wholly endemic to Chinese film history—to his idiosyncratic style, using its familiarity and specificity to detach and defamiliarize these initially shocking stories, which had quickly become ubiquitous to the Chinese public. Said Jia, “While I do not agree with the way these characters solve their problems, I am empathetic to their disposition. More importantly, we cannot stand by and become passive spectators of these tragedies.”

From these four narratives emerge themes of social, spiritual, sexual and what Jia calls “invisible” forms of violence, which ultimately materialize in the individual, and are compounded by such factors as family, the public sphere, and industry. In preparing for the shoot with his actors, Jia believed it vital to have each travel to the exact location where the event took place. Although they were not always locations where the film was ultimately shot, it was important to track the paths of migration treaded by each tragic figure. To see where they slept, what they ate, adopt their regional dialects, and the details of their surroundings helped construct the missing parts of the picture; this way, in lieu of an apt language to describe these violent ruptures, the actors’ bodies become the means of communication in the image—to make violence visceral and, by extension, make invisible forces that create violence visible.

Migration and transformation go hand-in-hand. As the film transitions from the arid, mineral palette of the northernmost province to the virescent humidity of the south, the seasons change with each narrative chapter, from before, during, and after Chinese New Year—when everyone plans their course for the rest of the year. Within each time frame emerges a character’s personal transformation, from ordinary to mystically heroic to tragically real. In Xiao Yu’s story, Jia even alludes to the myth of the White Snake, the ill-fated love story between an anthropomorphizing snake spirit and her human lover (Tsui Hark’s 1993 adaptation of this tale, Green Snake, plays in the sauna’s waiting room). This combination of historical, legendary, and mythical properties in character and overall narrative is in fact the premise of a form of storytelling called Yan yi, as ancient as the concept of migration in China. Jia cites influence from Water Margin, an epic Yan yi based upon true events about outlaws in the Song dynasty—victims-turned-perpetrators of corruption and torture, who migrated to seek transformation of their fate, and whose tragic destinies parallel those of the contemporary figures dramatized in Jia’s film.

Heightening the film’s unique sense of surrealism are the startling images of animals dispersed throughout each chapter, their appearances enriched by Jia’s background in classical painting. The animals seem to connect these tableaux of human cruelty to a wider historical and even cosmic context. Bore into the collective Chinese imagination as the animals of the twelve zodiac signs (out of which eight appear in this film), they are abstract symbols of human destiny. They are also silent, uncanny witnesses—as they were in the Taihang mountains in Water Margin—to all the human brutality. After Xiao Yu slays her attackers, she walks onto the shadowy roads of the mountains and sees a herd of stoic oxen, somber apparitions lit up by passing headlights in the night. Animals are victims, too, of this absurd modernizing world, as seen when Dahai walks past a mare who suffers more than the Turin Horse, thanks to an act of violence that gets repeated among humans in the third chapter. (Although who can still define the absurd, or surreal when, in real life, this and this have become commonplace?)

“The worst is not. So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” The words of King Lear come to mind when Xiao Yu arrives in Shanxi after each violent event has passed, presumably almost a year later, still seeking to transform her fate. When the dust storm clears, she encounters a mass of locals walking in the opposite direction with increasing force and number, until she seems to disappear off frame at the same time that she is obscured by the crowd. With her grace and inimitable emotional austerity, actress Zhao Tao always evokes all of Jia’s previous films, but the ending to A Touch of Sin also recalls the images of the rain ritual in final shattering moments of Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984). In that film, shot almost 30 years ago upon the same weathered, dusty earth of Shanxi, the young Hanhan, would-be inheritor of a rural, archaic way of life, stood to face the visiting Red Guard, an apocryphal symbol of social change, with an expression as blank and silent as that of Xiao Yu, who, in another time of social impasse, drowns amid a mass of entranced villagers. Like Yellow Earth and Water Margin, A Touch of Sin is a sort of rain ritual—an attempt to reestablish bonds between our disconnected individual spirits via a new cinematic language. It will not be Jia’s last of this kind: he has said his next film will be a wuxia film set in the Qin dynasty, when Xi’an, Shanxi, was the capital of a China taking its first steps towards modernity.