I have seldom seen a film more nihilistic in tone than A Touch of Sin, the Chinese epic currently screening at the Cinema du Parc in Montreal. Of course, many American films have been nihilistic: one thinks of the films made from Hubert Selby’s remarkable novels. But for sheer out-and-out disgust with the mores and practices of modern society, this film by noted director Jia Zhange really takes the cake.
By means of showing the pressures on life of four characters in different parts of China, whose stories are joined only by the element of their unbearable conditions of life, director Zhange turns a resounding thumbs down on the recent highly touted achievements of the so-called People’s Republic, and it is no wonder that the Chinese censors, after first allowing the film its general imprimature, have since delayed and shilly-shallied around before granting it their full approval.
The first of these sories is the most startling of all: a miner in the province of Shanxi becomes infuriated because a local man recently promoted to be a village boss refuses to share the proceeds from his new power with villagers, as he had promised. So the disaffected miner, Dahai, newly arrived back in the village, takes a shotgun, and kills almost everybody who pops into his sight as he marches around demanding justice. He does not appear in the film again, but others take his place, notably a woman named Xiaoyu (played by the director’s wife), who, failing to persuade her married lover to abandon his wife, wanders off, becomes an employee in a sauna, only to find the even tenor of her life interrupted by a brutal beating administered by her lover’s wife and family. With that behind her she returns to work, only to be harassed by a couple of customers who assume she must be available for sexual favours. She rejects them, shuts the door in their face, but one of them returns and attacks her, whereupon she grabs a knife from her purse (we have already seen that she took the knife when her lover had to surrender it when denied admission to a train), and so brutally attacks and kills the man that she wanders off into the night covered in blood, and with her mind at least somewhat deranged.
Finally, a nice young couple who meet when working in a sort of hotel begin to become friends. The youth has left the factory he worked in when he discovered that an injury caused to a colleague when they were having an idle chat was being held to his account, and he would have to give his entire wages to his injured colleague until he recovered. To avoid that he ran away and got the job in the hotel, which catered to visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Just as the factory workers had been dragooned into wearing a uniform and performing in silence in a huge hanger full of thousands, so in the hotel the employees whose disguised responsibility was to lay on sexual favours for their clients, are marshalled, lined up, and forced to abase themselves before their callow visitors. One of the few really personal moments beween any of the characters in his bleak film comes when the youth, having heard at a theatrre that a young man and woman should say something like “I really like you,” to each other, tries it on with his new friend, and asks her to run away with him. She quickly tells him there is no future, as she has found, in the sex trade, that she already has a three year old child whom she has the responsibility to raise, and that she could not think of leaving with him. The next shot we see of him is as a passenger on a moto taxi, making yet another inevitable getaway. But the prospects where he ends up are no better: he is confronted by a brutal gang leader, and takes the ultimate decision.
It is conceivabke, of curse that there might be some people in China who feel atwinge of human feelings for their fellows from time to time, and one has to warn that just as we would object if anyone made a film about the degenerated city of Detroit and pretended it was representative of the United States as a whole, so we should not take it for granted that this is the total story about the New China.
Yet even making every allowance for that, the view it gives of China is so convincing, so depressing, and so potent for the future prospects of the world that one can hardly not take alarm. If this is the face of any part of Communism as it is presently practised in China, one wonders exactly how long it can last. These people have been turned ino the workshop producing the mostly unnecessary things demanded by wealthier, capitalist, western countries, things that we could make ourselves, if we really needed them, and that we should be making ourselves, if only to provide work for our workers.
One can hardly escape the feeling that if the workers --- even a few of the workers --- of China are as angry --- seething with anger is how they appear ---- as is indicated in this film, someday, and perhaps soon, they must surely blow up as they realize they are feeding the wealth of the Western world, by their work, and are themselves reduced to the level of meaningless drudges as they do so.
What a message: and what a film!