A snake the length of a gas line slithers across a road. A cart horse is whipped with sadistic glee. Gangs extort travelers at the point of a gun. In A Touch of Sin, China is a country whose march towards industrialization and participation in the global capitalist network has left or perhaps provoked instances of inexplicable violence, but with enough cracks for reminders of a less mechanized time to seep. Dahai (Jiang Wu) cannot remember a time when someone didn’t order him around. Before it was the Communist Party apparatus; now it’s the village chief and the local boss, both of whose coffers have swelled thanks to the selling of property that was once collectivized, a phenomenon with which citizens in Margaret Thatcher’s England are familiar. No one in this village takes Dahai seriously: if it’s not one boss it’s another, right? No wonder director Jia Zhang-ke includes a shot of a mouldering statue of Mao and of the boss’ gleaming luxury vehicle in the same ten-minute sequence.
How the stolid Dahai exacts revenge for this depredations forms one of the threads in Jia’s skein. Shooting these executions such that the audience can’t turn away from the beautiful sprays of blood may suggest his approval, but as A Touch of Sin unfolds his intentions become clearer. He records patterns of futility. Returning to Chongquing, one of the largest cities on the banks of the Yangtze River, on his motorcycle, Zhou San can’t get on with the son whose cheeks he pinches too hard, with the brothers who dispense with pleasantries to discuss money. In Wang Baoqiang’s expression flits a sneer that often hardens into menace.
Without lapsing into the didactic, Jia shows how capitalism manipulated by an authoritarian culture molders into kleptocracy, in which everyone is on the take and everything for sale, therefore life is worthless. 2006’s Still Life, one of the decade’s quietest and most devastating films, showed how the Three Gorges Dam transformed the Yangtze into a river of money; the lives on the periphery attempt relations whose gestures towards significance are a kind of pantomime. The plot strand concerning massage parlor receptionist Xiao Yu (Zhao Taom, Jia’s wife), an alert woman slapped and excoriated by her lover’s wife, is closest to Antonioni ennui — the scene between the disappointed lovers we’ve seen a hundred times — but it’s also a nod towards the martial arts film A Touch of Zen when she enacts her revenge on the man who tries to rape her. Sudden and brutal, the scene is the only one in which the violence feels predetermined instead of a culmination. But Jia includes bits of observed life: black men drinking under trees shouting “Hola!” to a distracted Xiao, as peripheral, incongruous and perfect as the kids on corners blasting hip hop in Something Wild (1986).
Meanwhile in the southeast Xiao (Luo Lanshan) in his factory makes the cheap consumer goods that inspire American politicians and media to get all nativist. When his finger is cut in a minor accident, the manager patiently explains, as if to a retarded child, Xiao will see his pay docked. The effete young man finds work in a brothel whose specialty is call girls in Red Guard fatigues doing Vegas show routines. He falls in love with one of the girls, naturally. Their most expressive shared gesture is freeing goldfish in a Buddhist temple (I imagined Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel mimicking it in an American remake). Framing in tight medium shots in cars and small rooms, Jia clearly likes his young lovers, their scenes intended as an emollient after ninety minutes of undulating doom, a reprise of the couple in The World, who deepened their attachment touring an unfinished amusing park that like a Chinese version of Epcot foretold a future that had never existed but for which its people could develop a nostalgia anyway — and what is nostalgia but sentiment unmoored from the reality which sustains it? A Touch of Sin understands: in the twenty-first century humankind cannot bear very much reality, and can’t pay for fantasies either.