It often feels now that we’ve created a world incapable of being governed for any notion of the collective good. Individuals and even organizations remain capable of generating wonders, but our societal clumps – whether cities, provinces, countries, continents – just keep failing, often with startling abandon. The only reason the crisis isn’t more obvious is surely that it’s too extreme for our comprehension; it seems impossible that this dazzling network of wonders we’ve constructed for ourselves could be so fragile. The toxic combination of ballooning inequalities, perversely unbalanced social contracts, grim environmental deficits, the chronic distraction and superficiality of the citizenship, and leadership hypocrisy so fluent and all-encompassing it needs to be marked by some new term: all of this increasingly resembles a mechanism that can only be powered by forcing more and more people (the poor, unwanted excess, in effect) into a pit of the living dead. The recent fiscal fiasco in the United States was notable for the grotesquerie of its details, but the basic scenario of underlying pus and blood bursting out into the open, temporarily stemmed only by pushing on a soiled bandage that will only deepen the underlying infection, is all but universally recurring now.
A Touch of Sin
The US gun epidemic demonstrates the all-but-obvious: that such incoherence will keep breeding more trouble - and, short-lived hand-wringing aside, mass acceptance of its presence. Jia Zhang-ke’s masterly new Chinese film A Touch of Sin, currently playing at the Bell Lightbox, causes us to reflect on the horrible if not terminal implications of viewing violence as inevitable; even as ethical – or at least, not plainly less ethical than all that surrounds it. Of course, this is in a certain sense one of the more over-explored subjects in cinema, embodied by all those ridiculous studies of the inner lives of serial killers, assassins, and the like. At times, Jia’s film has the startlingly brutal and bloodily stylized moments that form the basic grammar of that grim genre, but it redeploys them not as periods, leading nowhere except into their own sick entrails, but rather as question marks, profoundly probing the environment that gave rise to them. In an interview, Jia put it like this: “I do believe that every instance of violence that I’m talking about has in the background injustice that’s suffered by these people. They have no language to express their anger, so they end up treating violence with violence.”
The film consists of four loosely-connected episodes, each a story of systemic injustice ending in personal tragedy. In the first, a man seethes at the corruption that sees the profits of recently denationalized industries flowing to an elite few, rather than for the public good; his efforts get him beaten up and ridiculed, so he takes other action. In the second, a compulsive traveler makes one of his periodic returns to his home village before setting off again; we ultimately learn how he makes his living. The third has a young woman, emotionally or physically mistreated by her lover, his wife, and by clients at the all-night sauna where she works, eventually forcing her to defend herself. The young man in the final, quietest story drifts through a series of jobs until the cumulative mistreatment and compromise forces him too into a bleak response.
Summed up in that way, the film may sound like a grind, but in Jia’s hands, it’s constantly visually ravishing, filled with remarkable compositions, often contrasting the country’s imposing physical presence with the faltering human attempts to master it, or alighting on small moments of beauty and mystery. It doesn’t feel hopeless necessarily – not as long as the basic everyday social fabric perseveres. But it’s also aware that the non-elite subsists on little more than relative scraps from the table. This is Jia again: “There’s suddenly an overwhelming sense of pessimism towards the current Chinese situation. In my past films, I’ve portrayed the various changes pertinent in Chinese society, but within this process of change there was always a notion that with these changes, life could bring upon itself certain resolutions to its problems. But now we see resources are being more and more held by a smaller margin of people and there’s less and less movement for progress for everyone else.”
This pessimism confers a certain nobility on the quotidian interactions of those people excluded from the elite. People still worry about not “losing face” in the eyes of others; the most likely way to get from A to B may be simply to wave at a passing truck and hop into the back; for every area of modernization, there’s another that hasn’t changed for decades. But these social rituals becomes as circumscribed as the travels of caged birds. In the second story, the protagonist’s older brother, taking seriously his familial responsibilities, sets out a full accounting of the net proceeds from their mother’s recent birthday celebration, and its division between the family members (right down to the left-over cigarettes). We already know however that the amounts involved are dwarfed by what’s been generated from the wanderer’s illegitimate activities: virtue doesn’t stand a chance, any more so than (in one of the loveliest scenes) a young prostitute’s attempt to rebalance her moral ledger through the Buddhist practice of releasing captive fish back into the water.
Jia’s comments about his growing pessimism seem to be rooted in clear-eyed realism. His strongest work prior to this, the 2004 film The World, was also often melancholy, and was particularly attuned toward the forces driving women toward merely superficial advancement, ornamentation or even prostitution. But compared to A Touch of Sin, it contained much deeper veins of humour, even using occasional cartoon inserts that through their peppy excess underlined the characters’ inertia (and, as a secondary theme, the mixed blessing of their reliance on cellphones, which isn’t a major factor in the new work). His personal journey in that ten-year gap, seemingly disinclined even to passingly enjoy the trivial offsets of our progress, tracks the calcifying of expectations about what the modern Chinese revolution might realistically achieve.
It’s uncannily mirrored in the West, for instance in how the recovery from the economic problems in 2008 belongs almost entirely to the super-rich (who, nevertheless, persist in portraying themselves as hamstrung by the ills of government regulation, taxes and so on); it sometimes seems like a miracle that this hasn’t unleashed greater physical anger and attempted redress. This makes A Touch of Sin doubly remarkable, as a film that’s both gloriously specific about its own environment, and disturbingly productive as a springboard to contemplating our own.