A Touch of Sin (2013)

A powerful cinematic masterpiece that delves into the darker corners of modern Chinese society raising important questions about the human condition and the price of progress.

7/29/20234 min read

Zhao Tao in 'A Touch of Sin'
Zhao Tao in 'A Touch of Sin'

Mandarin, Cantonese

130 minutes, 2013

Director: Jia Zhangke

Cast: Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Zhao Tao, Zhang Jiayi, Lanshan Luo, Meng Li

Awards: Best Screenplay, and Nominee Palme d’Or, Cannes Film Festival, 2013; Winner Critics Award, Best Foreign Film, French Syndicate of Cinema Critics; Best Foreign Language Film, Toronto Film Critics Association Awards, 2013; Nominee Best International Film, Munich Film Festival, 2013

Four characters with four life stories sharing one common thread- all reach a breakpoint due to desperation and traverse the landscape of the China. Interestingly, the film is based on true events.

The first story is of Dahai (Jiang Wu), a village low-life who nobody pays any attention to. Dahai confronts the village chief about mining operations’ sale dividends which are ignored. He tells everybody that he will complain to Head Quarter in Beijing about the embezzlement of funds. When the owner of the mine, his old classmate, comes to the village in his new private aeroplane, Dahai, in front of everybody tells him that he is going to complain about mining operations’ funds. Soon his goons bash him up landing him in hospital with head injury. Villagers mock him and this instigates Dahai. He finds a Shotgun in his house, loads it and kills one by one- A clerk who ridicules him, the village accountant and his wife, the village chief, a man who flogs his horse always and lastly mine owner, Mr. Jiao. This sequence is loosely based on an incident which happened in 2001, in Shanxi province (Jia’s home province) where three men led by 46 year old Hu Wenhai killed 14 fellow villagers due to mining rights’ dispute and corruption.

The second story is about Saner (Wang Baoqiang), who returns to his village to participate in celebrations organised by his elder brother as his mother turns 70. Saner lives by gun and in the opening sequence of the film, we see him gunning three youngster who attempt to rob him. His source of income is robbing people with money by killing them. Saner’s story is based on Zhou Kehua, a criminal who is reported to have robbed and murdered at least 9 people between 2004 and 2012.

The third story is that of a receptionist at a spa, Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao) who is having an affair with a married man. The man however is not able to come clean and tell his wife. Xiao tells him that she will give him six months after which they will part ways. Once in spa, a customer wants her to sleep with him. On persistently telling him that she can’t do that he hits her with money repeatedly. She kills him with a pocket knife and confesses to murder by calling emergency phone line. This Hubei incident is based on the life of a 21 year old pedicure worker, Deng Yujiao, who killed director of local township business promotion office for making sexual advancements towards her even after her refusal on earlier occasions. She was arrested and opposed bail. But due to storm on internet fuelled by public anger, she was later given bail.

The fourth story is of a young boy Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo), who works in a garment factory. Due to an injury caused during working hours due to his negligence, his pay is transferred to the injured worker. He flees company to work in a night club in another city. There he befriends Lian Rong (Meng Li), a hostess. He wants to go away with her but Lian tells him that she has a daughter studying away and in line of sex-work, there cannot be any love stories. Dejected he comes back only to be caught by his colleague, who was supposed to be receiving his wages. His mother calls and torments him for not sending her money. Frustrated, he jumps off his workers’ quarters and commits suicide. This incident was based on numerous worker suicides by Foxconn factory workers.

Jia Zhangke's direction is both unflinching and masterful. He artfully blends social commentary with intense drama showcasing the harsh realities faced by the characters. Lead actors excel in their respective roles, bringing authenticity and depth to their characters' struggles. Their portrayals are extremely natural and poignant, making the audience empathize with the complex web of emotions driving their actions. Overall, the film doesn't provide easy answers or moral judgments. Instead, it encourages viewers to reflect on the underlying issues and challenges facing modern Chinese society.

About the director, Jia Zhangke

Born in May, 1970 at Fenyang in Shanxi province of China, Jia enrolled in Shanxi University as an Art Student after finishing school in 1990s. He joined The prestigious Beijing Film Academy in 1993 which opened the flood gates of world cinema for him.

He made three short films while in academy. The second short, ‘Xiao Shan Going Home’ left Chinese shores and was screened at Hong Kong where it won top Prize at ‘Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards’. He was noticed by film world in general and producers in particular since the film had a different style and narrative.

Soon, due to his short film’s success, he started preparing for his first feature film, ‘Xiao Wu’ which eventually was going to be shot later. ‘Xiao Wu’ is about a pick-pocket on the backdrop of massive changes sweeping Chinese society. This film was a big success in international circles. Banking on success of first feature, Jia made two more feature films outside Chinese Film Apparatus. The first of those was ‘Platform’ (2000), a film about a dance and music troupe, which faces societal changes with changing times. This was primarily funded by Hubert Bals Fund Award through Busan international Film festival, South Korea. His third film, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (2002) was result of ‘one-child policy’ of Chinese government. No wonder then that none of these three films were publicly released in China but were circulated through DVDs earning him wide recognition at home and abroad.

However, after this film Jia began working with government and made many films like ‘The World’ (2004), ‘Still Life’ (2006) and ‘24 City’ (2008). ‘Still Life’ won ‘The Golden Lion’ at Venice international Film festival and ‘24 City’ was screened in competition section at Cannes Film festival.

His present film, ‘A touch of Sin’ came in 2013 and was also screened in competition section at Cannes Film Festival. Jia’s films found wider international audience due to his penchant for depicting contemporary Chinese society as opposed to other filmmakers who took recourse to Chinese history and legends. Jia is regarded as one of the key filmmakers of ‘sixth generation’ of Chinese filmmakers.