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Irrational Self-Interest - "A Touch Of Sin" (China, 2013)

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‘A Touch Of Sin’ begins a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 31st.

Even the sunniest cockeyed optimists among us are going to be able to relate to Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s jaundiced survey of ascendant capitalist absolutism and the globally waning sense of commonwealth in his latest film, A Touch Of Sin (天注定, Tian Zhu Ding) (China, 2013). The four stories Jia relates here are, in fact, based on true stories that occurred in four distinct corners of continental China, and each story carries with it implicit questions – When does civility give way to survival? What is each person’s breaking point? When must we lash out at personal injustice, despite knowing that our own self-preserving counterattack will do little, if anything, to change the things that gave rise to it in the first place?

Jia’s films tend to focus on individual people as cogs in a much larger gear-driven machine: the displaced workers and associated adjacent businesspeople of a factory that’s being torn down to make way for a giant residential complex, amusement park employees who emulate the landmark entertainments and environments of the rest of the non-Chinese world, the inhabitants of a town who are dismantling it prior to it being buried underwater by the Three Gorges Dam. The films, up until now, have always blended individual people-portraits with documentary-style overview, scrupulously observed but undeniably humanist. But here, Jia is taking the predominantly fictional style of wuxia stories – heroic tales of lone warriors fighting against historical injustice – and applying those genre tropes to very modern purposes in uncharacteristically bloody fashion.

One of the four stories concerns Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), who is almost entirely defined by his relationship with the handgun he carries at all times. Early in the film it helps him repel an attempted robbery. Later, at a New Year’s celebration with his young nephew, he fires it in complement to a barrage of celebratory fireworks. Finally, it assists him in committing his own seemingly cold-blooded robbery of a conspicuously rich couple. As the sword, the bow-and-arrow and the martial arts defined the usefulness of the historical warrior, so too here Jia seems to proffer the quiet and sullen San as an identical figure of comparably fearsome resource in the modern age. But what in the modern world is shaping his moral philosophies? What is the noble ideal he can refer to that enlarges, or transcends, his own sense of self? What is he preserving? That larger view is disturbingly conspicuous in its absence.

A pair of avengers comprise two of the other stories. Xiao Yu (Jia regular Tao Zhao) is yet another good-hearted woman having a love affair with a man who will never leave his wife, and she carries the ongoing anxiety and resentment of that situation with her to her thankless job as a receptionist at a retail-franchise sauna-spa in Hubei. Dahai (Jiang Wu) lives in a small, remote mining town, Shanxi, and insistently engages his long-suffering neighbors and fellow workers in hot-blooded diatribes against their greedy bosses, their corrupt local officials, and the arrogant corporate-types whom, Dahai preaches, are pulling all of the others’ strings. Jiang Wu (like his equally talented actor-director brother, Jiang Wen) does great work here, always keeping us guessing whether he’s right about it all, or just a malcontent crank. But when his proselytizing turns from verbal outrage to violence (in response to violence he may, or may not, have brought on himself), we must make up our own minds whether he’s abhorrently gone off his nut or acting as a truly justified equalizer for his less courageous comrades. Xiao Yu, as well, endures an escalating cascade of small humiliations, in the affair and at work, which results in a similarly grisly episode. Here our sympathies are far more deliberately directed towards Xiao, but do those sympathies still warrant what happened? With both Dahai and Xiao, Jia elicits an undeniable satisfaction with each of their acts, even as we lament that things had to come to that.

The fourth story, on its face, seems to be the mildest, but eventually traffics in such conflicting moral ambiguities that it’ll no doubt be the one I think of the most days after viewing the film. Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) is an amiable, easygoing young man who floats from job to job, pursuing his own self-interested path to steady work and security in a manner that Ayn Rand herself might reluctantly applaud. When he causes a problem at the factory job that starts the story, he simply relocates to another part of Dongguang province, and takes another. Eventually he ends up on the waitstaff at a very high-end businessmen’s hotel, which is discreetly but clearly also a very high-end businessmen’s brothel. He meets one of the hostesses, Lianrong (Zhang Jia-yi), and cultivates a friendship with her that he hopes will escalate. But, ultimately, relentlessly, business is business, and job-to-job, place-to-place, paycheck-to-paycheck, Xiao is tragically undone by that simple, relentless fact.

Generally, Jia’s film is seen as the story of how encroaching capitalism is eroding centuries of humanistic common cause and the general welfare of the citizenry of one of the largest and most populated countries on Earth. And there are many parallels to our own situation here in the United States. But Jia is doing far more than just presenting a they-did-it critique of capitalism; he’s indicting those on the receiving end of its ill effects as well. “People get depressed when they're confronted by examples of enduring privilege and social injustice... our society lacks channels of communication; when people don't have the habit of communicating with each other, violence becomes the fastest and most efficient way for the weak to protect their dignity.” Jia Zhang-ke is no great fan of corporate capitalism, but he’s even less enamored with the idea that violence is the only thing that will counteract its effects; that’s on us as much as it’s on them. He’s not indicating the line where those responsibilities transfer, but he wants us to feel thrilled and vindicated when, at last, the knives and shotguns come out, but then wonder to ourselves later why we think that’s really going to change anything.

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