A TOUCH OF SIN Review: Heaven Knows They’re Miserable Now

Want to work for a corporate boss who breaks his share-the-profits-with-the-workers promise and who then expects you to greet him with flowers and cheers as he emerges from his private jet? Look, if you participate in the welcoming committee there’s a free bag of flour in it for you. Now you’re enticed. He’s so generous.

jia 1Or maybe you’d prefer employment at a sex sauna as the receptionist, getting beaten by customers who’re angered when you refuse to shift gears and become a private dancer? Maybe, instead, you’d like to be treated like a bolt in a machine as you work for almost nothing in a phone-making factory? No? Then stay out of Jia Zhang-ke’s Misery-China (aka China), a place where Communism is a dusty statue of Mao and globalized corporate greed is making a literal killing; in other words, the worst of both worlds devouring its own citizens.

But when The Man gets you down what do you do about it? When the rich rob the poor, when government breaks its promise, when work becomes abuse, when your body isn’t even your own to decide its fate, and proper resistance channels are blocked or broken or non-existent, then life becomes fighting and your recourse is violence (the title is Jia’s nod to 70s martial arts epic A Touch Of Zen, while the Chinese title translates to “Ill-Fated”).

A Touch of Sin is based on recent real-life news incidents Jia learned about from Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, which often features information and news ignored by the mainstream Chinese media. A rural miner went on a shooting spree against the corrupt leaders of his village, a migrant worker moonlighted as an armed robber, a sauna receptionist stabbed a customer who beat her when she refused his money for sex and — the story most Westerners have heard — multiple suicides took place at iPhone factories. Loosely connected, Jia’s version of these incidents form a counter-narrative to the official story of China’s “economic miracle,” the human cost paid by the country’s least powerful contributors to that miracle.

jia 2Jia’s films have, in the past, leaned toward the long take. In Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World and Still Life, among others, his camera holds you in place while his characters struggle with and against the imposition of dehumanizing progress. But the director’s own progression finds him moving away from the influence of filmmakers like Robert Bresson (Jia’s 1997 feature debut, Xiao Wu/The Pickpocket, was an homage to Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket) and Hou Hsiao-hsien and, in this case, in the direction of more genre-oriented film. His restless people, victims of economic and spiritual violence, aren’t interested in keeping still. Their stories shift and jerk and propel them toward a breaking point, reflected in Jia’s (along with longtime collaborator cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai and editors Lin Xudong and Matthieu Laciau) much more active formal approach and the result is a beautifully angry work of art, a cry for people over profits, as precise, moving and heavy as anything you’ll see this year. In his sorrowful vision of Life Right Now, everything on screen follows the jagged line of trickle-down cruelty, one where the bottom isn’t the bottom at all. These victims lash out, forming a circle of unhappiness and futile revenge, taking out their oppressors and sometimes themselves in the name of fighting back.

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