Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is a difficult film to watch, but it is one that needs to be seen all the same. Brutal and beautiful in equal measure, this is one of the best films to come out of China in recent memory. Why then is it banned in China?
It is banned because it portrays a narrative that does not fit into the one Beijing seeks to show us. The China we see and hear about is one with gleaming skyscrapers and a booming economy—a nation ready to take on the role of superpower in the coming decades. A Touch of Sins shows us a very different People’s Republic, one where corrupt officials are hand in glove with sleazy businessmen who are in turn tolerated by spineless citizens. It makes for pretty bleak viewing.
The film has four stories, each of which is apparently based on a fairly recent news account. Each vignette is set in a different region of China. What connects them is the economic and political corruption of the system. It is almost a forensic study of how the main characters respond. The answer is with violence.
The first story tells of Dahai, a villager clad in a military coat that has seen better times. Dahai nurses a seething grudge against the local big shot, who flies around in a private jet and has a Maserati. He tries to expose the shady and underhand dealings of the rich man, but is frustrated at every turn. His rage increasing, he digs out his old army rifle and goes about righting the wrongs in the village.
The second story follows drifter Zhou San, who returns to his village for the Chinese New Year. Once there he watches the fireworks with his son, and then commits a violent crime. The third story follows a sauna employee named Xiaoyu, abandoned by her married lover and beaten by his furious wife. When a client tries to molest her, she snaps. The subsequent scene is both brutal and brilliant.
After these unremittingly grim stories, we hope for something happier, a tale of hope and love perhaps. It is not to be; Jia is an unforgiving director. In the final piece we watch teenager Xiaohui, desperately trying to support his family by working at a nightclub/brothel. He falls in love with one of the hostesses/prostitutes, with unhappy consequences.
These characters are antiheroes, all angry and at breaking point. The film considers the issues that have been largely ignored in the mainstream narrative about China’s meteoric rise. It is a tale of economic inequality, social instability, a weak social system, and an ultraviolent sense of every man for himself. A Touch of Sin tells us that, in contemporary China, no good deed goes unexploited, meaning that good people are few and far between.
Jia deserves credit for the nuance he instills in all of his stories. Dahai only reaches for his gun after his petitions are rejected by the central government; the other characters follow similar paths before resorting to violence.
The director says that he does not endorse violence. In an interview with the New York Times, Jia noted, “I don’t want this film to inspire imitation or to convince people that violence is good. I trust that the power of this film lies in its ability to encourage people to think about violence, to reflect on it.” This is exactly the view of China that the Communist Party does not want the world to see. The subtle message that sometimes violence is understandable, if not justified, cannot sit easy with a government eager to stamp out any sign of dissent.
A Touch of Sin won best screenplay at Cannes in 2013, but the average person in China would never have heard of Jia or his films. It is likely to stay that way, if the government ban on media coverage of the film continues. This is darkly ironic, given the film’s exploration of the unintended consequences of suppression.
Gautham Ashok is a postgraduate student of International Affairs at the Jindal School of International Affairs in India.