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'Touch of Sin', a chronicle of China's transformation

Touch of Sin

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Jia Zhang-ke’s "Tian zhu ding" (Touch of Sin) opening on Jan 3 in San Francisco at the Roxie for a week long run, is a commanding film that was in the Cannes Film Festival selection in May and wound up on the jury’s short list for best screenplay.

Jia Zhangke chronicles transformation of China in 'Touch of Sin'
Jia Zhangke chronicles transformation of China in 'Touch of Sin'Festival de Cannes

As with Zhang-ke’s other films, the director chronicles the new development and transformation of China after the Cultural Revolution.

San Francisco based actress Joan Chen, special guest of the 2012 San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, told San Francisco Film Industry Examiner.com that Jia Zhang-ke is "one of the most important directors of contemporary China".

Zhang-ke's films have often only been available within China in the illegal DVD market, but 'Touch of Sin' was produced by the Shanghai Film Group, a government-sponsored production company.

The director weaves four stories from four provinces, each concerning the struggles of a particular worker in China as the country embraces global capitalism, all true stories known to the Chinese. In each case, the power of self determination is undermined by a corrupt system that cripples the human spirit: a miner (Jiang Wu) who fights for official acknowledgement that his village’s factory was sold to pay for the boss’s car and private jet and goes on a tirade of revenge; a receptionist (Zhao Tao) who refuses to sleep with one of the clientele and stabs him instinctively in the spirit of a wuxia warrior (an event that occurred in 2009 in the Hubei province) ; a young man (Lanshan Luo) who works at a hotel with a covert sex trade and later jumps off a building when the realities become clear to him of his employment; a traveling migrant worker who survives by theft and even murder (Wang Baoqiang).

Jia Zhangke revealed at Cannes in May that he was inspired by the wuxia tale by Taiwanese director King Hu's "Touch of Zen" (1971) . The film is about a noblewoman who together with an artist seek revenge on an evil eunuch. Zhangke was interested in Hu's use of the political aspect of wuxia for fighting corruption.

"For reasons I can’t fully explain, these four individuals and the incidents they were involved in remind me of King Hu’s martial arts films. I’ve drawn on inspiration from the martial arts genre to construct these present-day narratives".

Each of the four individuals try to survive in a changing political and economic climate imposed by global capitalism in China.

The director’s mise en scène, which calls attention to old statues of Mao Tse Tung in town squares, Maserati cars and Calvin Kline underwear, illustrates the displacement of the Chinese worker through chaotic economic forces. The powerful story arch leaves the spectator with a visceral and insightful view of today's China and the consequences of its rapid transformation since the Cultural Revolution back to 19th century mercantile capitalism.