A Touch of Sin: wuxia film as panoramic treatment of violence
“I can see plenty of parallels between the pressures of survival in contemporary China and the situations in which the Chinese found themselves in earlier centuries. It’s natural for me to associate this perception with works of Chinese literature and films which have broached these issues in the past. The difference for me is that I’m working in the internet age, at a time when some people own private planes, when the high-speed rail network is spreading everywhere and when people are closer to each other on Weibo than they may be in real life. That’s why I wanted the four stories in the film to interweave. I want to understand how we are evolving, to see how people ‘restructure’ their lives in our time, and to grasp how we form associations with each other in the world we’re building.” – Jia Zhang-ke (Cannes 2013 Press Kit)
Jia Zhang-ke’s new socially conscious action film is another dazzling work from one of China’s preeminent voices of modern cinema. A Touch of Sin (2013) is a film only Jia could make, supplanting traditional wuxia – martial hero – film conventions to modern Chinese society to explore the social context of violence. Inspired by recent acts of violence since the 2008 Olympics and King Hu’s wuxia films, Jia’s new film is a panoramic film that explores the causes and effects of violence in the constantly changing social landscape of contemporary China.
A Touch of Sin takes its name from the King Hu film A Touch of Zen (1971), a Taiwanese wuxia film, and is made up of four stories, a prologue and epilogue that brings the narrative full circle. Jia focuses on four different regions in China: Shanxi, Chongqing, Hubei, and Guangdong. Every story in the film is based on a news story and all of them reminded Jia of the wuxia films he loves, especially the films by Hu. Jia felt that a way to deal with these violent stories was by filtering them through the wuxia genre. This brings to mind Quentin Tarantino’s recent films that try to deal with the history of the oppressed via genre films but A Touch of Sin and Tarantino’s genre experiments could not be more different. This has to do with how these two directors visualize and understand history. For Tarantino history is more or less film history, and his films have no connection to historical reality (defined as the concrete events of politics and struggle between classes). Jia has always been committed to a certain documentary style to his fiction films and even in a genre film like A Touch of Sin there is dialogue with real concrete situations that takes place. Jia’s film is able to use fictional modes to explore the sociology of violence rather than merely hint at it like Tarantino’s cinema is prone to do.
The wuxia genre is a broad genre of Chinese fiction that deals with the adventures of martial artists. Originating in literature, wuxia has now expanded to Chinese opera, manhua films, TV series, and video games. Wuxia is a compound word made up of wu (martial or armed) and xia (honorable or hero). A martial hero that follows a code of xia is called a xiake (follower of xia) or a youxia (wandering xia). Wuxia characters typically do not serve a lord, a military leader, or the aristocratic class. They more often than not come from the lower classes and are bound by a code that requires them to bring justice to society.
The earliest wuxia films date back to the 1920s and are still popular in mainstream to this day. However, the characterizations and narrative structures of the wuxia films are not unique to Chinese art but essentially are the same as Western narratives that deal with a lone hero defending justice and fighting evil. Even the supposedly morally ambivalent films noirs from American cinema feature heroes that follow a moral code (Philip Marlowe is an urbanized white knight). The moral code as a story device is a persistent ideologeme – a framework of ideas that contain the most reducible components of ideology – of American and world cinema that emphasizes individualist rather than collective solutions to problems, and wuxia films are simply another genre that uses it in their narratives.
Jia revises the wuxia genre by inserting a socially conscious approach to action, violence, and evil that disposes of the individualized ideology of wuxia films. Jia, in his neo-realist style, spends the beginning of each story by looking into a particular social, economic, and political situation of the main characters in such a way that the micro-politics are explored and developed. He throws us into a situation and presents a conflict which is then solved by violence. There are no discussions of morals but only depictions of concrete social situations. The first story has a very clear villain and protagonist. Dahai is a miner that has uncovered political corruption in Shanxi (the place where Jia grew up). Dahai confronts the villain and is then beat savagely in front of a large group of people. He is subsequently nicknamed Mr. Golf, ridiculed by the community and responds by shooting everyone involved in the corruption with a shotgun. We never are directed towards identifying with either of these characters in the story because the focus is on the collective not the individual. What makes this story so harrowing is that violent reactions do nothing to change the social situation helped create this reaction. Dahai killing the corrupt officials is not enough to stop the injustice. The true villains are the social structures that first allow political corruption and then shut down peaceful rebuke from citizens.
The third story feels the most like a wuxia film because of how Jia filmed this seqment’s climactic action sequence. To backtrack, this story features a character named Xiaoyu and takes place in Hubei, a city in central China. Xiaoyu works as a secretary at an adult massage parlor and is propositioned by two somewhat confused and very horny clients. They insist on having sex with her and she insists on not having sex with them. One man pulls out a wad of cash and repeatedly slaps in her in the face with it (this was the most brutal scene in the film). She pulls out a knife and slashes them like a trained martial artist. The choreography and the camera work in the sequence was intentionally sensational and created an artificial quality that was absent in the previous stories. It breaks with the documentary-like mode of storytelling that Jia established in the film up to this point. This break in style signified that a sequence like this – from wuxia films – is fictional, imaginary; in reality she would have been raped.
Jia’s ability to combine martial arts film conventions within his own neo-realist aesthetic permits him to explore social problems through fiction. In the same way that paintings are able to depict movement in a different way than films and films can depict stillness in a different way than paintings, fiction narratives can explore reality in a different way than documentaries. The wuxia conventions are used to highlight recent events in Chinese society that news programs were unable to properly depict their importance because of the nature of the news media. Like all of Jia’s films, A Touch of Sin gives a look into the state of global capitalism and contemporary culture that few directors have been able to do in cinema. A Touch of Sin is another work that demonstrates why Jia is one of the most important directors of the 21st century.