Leading Chinese director and independent cinema figure Jia Zhangke’s newest feature, A Touch Of Sin, flies in the face of official rhetoric about a “harmonious” Chinese society with graphically violent images. However, when looking at the ways in which it actually complied with government censorship to gain funding and distribution, the question about whether or not it is “subversive” becomes much more difficult to answer.
The film, which won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, held its U.S. premiere at the 51st New York Film Festival and was the only Chinese entry in this year’s program.
Jia, known for his docudramatic portrayals of marginalized members of Chinese society, often from his home province of Shanxi, has described the film as a “state of the nation.” Starring the director’s muse and wife Zhao Tao along with popular everymen Wang Baoqiang and Jiang Wu, A Touch Of Sin is structured as four loosely connected vignettes based on real-life incidences of seemingly random acts of violence committed by ordinary people that were reported by the news and widely circulated via the Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo. In most cases, both in real life and in the film, the perpetrator of violence was a poor and marginalized individual avenging a previous injustice by someone more powerful.
The film counteracts the idea of China’s “harmonious society”, glorifying individual vigilantism against abuses of power with incredibly graphic violence. For example, it begins with the story of a villager who goes on a killing spree after becoming infuriated by a corrupt coal boss; next, a farmer escapes rural ennui by leading a double life as a professional criminal aided by an illegal handgun (Chinese law forbids civilian gun ownership). Though he breaks the law, the farmer is portrayed as a responsible family man while his victims seem to be local fat cats. Similarly, Zhao Tao’s character as a sauna receptionist and longtime mistress to a businessman elicits more sympathy than blame. She exhibits more integrity than anyone else she encounters, as shown in her rejection of mistress-dom and prostitution in favor of marriage. When she stabs an attacker in bloody self-defense, viewers are relieved.
However, the film bows to censorship through both omission and active participation in the government’s narrative: namely, it never directly criticizes the central government, which would be a sure way to be banned in the country, and its portrayal of decadent and extravagant local officials as villains actually strongly coincides with Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Nor does it touch upon what happens to ordinary people who break the law in a country notorious for its prison system.
The film is careful to acknowledge participants in the ménage a trois of power, corruption, and wealth only at the local level. Local power is a source for villains, but the official seat of it is conspicuously absent from the film apart from a scene depicting a failed attempt to post a letter of complaint to Zhongnanhai, the Chinese equivalent of the White House. In the scene, the villager is prevented from even sending his letter from the local post office when he fails to provide an exact address. The interaction is deceivingly trite and even comical, but it is significant to note the official process of petitioning in the Chinese legal system that allows individuals to express grievances via letters and calls to petitioning bureaus. Some people make it as far as Beijing, the country’s capital, but here, the villager can’t even get his letter into the box, enforcing the stark reality of both physical and mental distance between the remote village and head of government, while also relieving the latter of accountability. The message seems clear: the system isn’t broken; it’s the people who need fixing.
Furthermore, the portrayal of local official misbehavior, far from being subversive, is actually in line with the government’s major ongoing propaganda campaign against corruption. Wealth and luxury goods are featured throughout the film as strong visual symbols of the relationship between money and immorality, with poverty and desperation on the other end. The corrupt coal boss rides in a private jet and both he and his wife wear expensive designer clothes. In another scene, the sauna receptionist is literally beaten over the head with money by the would-be rapist who demands, “Isn’t my money good enough?” Meanwhile, a smartphone-wielding teen finds work at a high-end brothel, but ultimately becomes disillusioned, and later uses an iPad to read about a corrupt village leader who is exposed to own 130 Louis Vuitton handbags.
A Touch Of Sin is not without controversy. Despite skirting the larger issue of official corruption that would have likely forced Jia back underground, the film depicts a country at unrest in scene upon scene of graphic violence. The question remains whether the film will be shown in China.
There are several reasons it will be shown. According to Jia during a talk hosted by Asia Society on Monday, he believes the film will be green-lighted for domestic distribution despite the sensitive topic mainly because the news stories on which it is based are already so widely known, thanks to Sina Weibo. “Weibo created a space for this movie to be accepted,” he says. “Because of Weibo, our understanding of the reality in Chinese society is very different from before, when there was more news censorship.”
All of Jia’s films have been government-approved since he released The World in 2004. In addition, Ren Zhonglun of Shanghai Film Group, the government entertainment group that co-produced A Touch Of Sin, goes as far to characterize his partnership with Jia as one of the top three in the world of Chinese cinema (the other two are Feng Xiaogang and Wang Zhonglei, Huayi Brothers’ president and Zhang Yimou and Zhang Weiping). Furthermore, the director caused a stir when he withdrew from the Melbourne Film Festival in 2009 after organizers refused to acquiesce to the Chinese government’s request to cancel the screening of a documentary about Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uighur Congress and believed by the Chinese government to be responsible for riots in China that left nearly 200 people dead weeks prior.
During the talk, Jia also emphasized the wuxia theme, citing similarities between the heroes of the Chinese classic novel Water Margin, about Robin Hood-like outlaws who rebel against the government during the Song Dynasty and the main characters of A Touch Of Sin. This may sound subversive at first glance, but perhaps the fact that the book concludes with the outlaws fighting on behalf of the imperial court as loyal subjects, reincorporated into the empire, also had something to do with the censors’ thumbs up. Jia goes as far as to plant some not-so-subtle clues: the mass murdering villager in the first vignette lives in Black Gold Mountain (black gold is Chinese slang for dirty money), and prior to his shooting spree, he very intentionally wraps his gun in a towel decorated by a large feline, likely a reference to Lin Chong, one of the protagonists of Water Margin, nicknamed “Panther Head”.
While the global, liberal elite will seek signs that point to dissent, the reality is there is no way to put Jia into a black-and-white category of “subversive” or “pro-government”. Those critical of Jia’s faux-indie status now that he’s done the folks back in Shanghai and Zhongnanhai proud should keep in mind that protest has often manifested itself in subversive forms throughout Chinese history; survival within such a stifling system requires it. The author of Water Margin incorporated what some might argue were superfluous religious and philosophical themes in a convoluted justification for the outlaws’ behavior in order to please the censors of the day (in reality, the outlaws were defending innocents against corrupt officials).
One might interpret Jia’s insistence on a wuxia theme and comparison to a pro-ruling class classic as necessary for survival, and to be heard. While the theme may seem gratuitous and even distracting, it may also serve as the cultural justification necessary for the government to approve it for mass consumption. At the same time, because the wuxia theme is so flimsy, viewers might see right through it and be moved to action, taking things into their own hands.