Jia Zhangke’s ‘A Touch of Sin’

As you may have noticed, the title of this blog is a (very subtle…) play on Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, which is in turn a reference to King Hu’s wuxia classic A Touch of Zen.

A Touch of Sin (Sin hereafter) portrays four vignettes, all violent in different ways. The stories are based on real-life accounts found by Jia on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, and which can readily be found in the news. Hence, the film is a continuation of the fictional realism that Jia has deployed in his other work (such as the scenes using his real-life coal-miner cousin Sanming in Platform). 

While the film is clearly a dramatisation of the events that constitute its basis, the absurdity of the exaggeration, such as the scene in which Xiaoyu wields a knife in a kind of wuxia satire, seems only to highlight the brutal reality (as well as the pointlessness of violence for violence’s sake in wuxia films).

Sin depicts Chinese citizens that have been pushed over the edge by social injustice. The unequal distribution of wealth and official corruption relentlessly drive the characters to fury, violence, and hopelessness. Hence, it is unsurprising that the Chinese government decided not to allow the film a domestic release after all; it is not at all flattering. However, let’s not dwell on the censorship of the film, as many critics appear to have done. Sin is political, but the politics of the content should interest us more than the imaginary of Jia as a struggling artist fighting against a totalitarian state (an imaginary that Western critics so adore).

While Sin is a far cry from Jia’s early realist films such as Xiao Wu or Platform, it is more dramatic and stylistic but still as subjective. Perhaps we could see the film’s protagonist Dahai as Platform’s Mingliang after years of failing to find his place among the new capitalist society and its injustices.


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