Film title: A Touch of Sin
Dir: Jia Zhangke
The world's eyes need to be on China right now. It's a hellhole quietly brewing through its façade of industrial strength and technological superiority. Chinese society is tightly pressurised by the government, and free will is not exactly the nation's greatest asset. This is the case with most Southeast Asian countries, but with China, its size, its political strong-arming and its sheer manpower it's a disaster time bomb waiting to explode. Such are the themes in Jia Zhangke's film A Touch of Sin.
Chinese films have always been reflecting the social stigmas in the country, but in A Touch of Sin, Zhangke weaves the themes around a truly epic mélange of stories and characters affected by country's higher powers. With that sort of subject matter this could have been any generic film but Zhangke establishes the communist and consumerist uniqueness of China's problems, giving us a view of a bizarre world that exists between the first and the third.
Premiering at Cannes with Zhangke winning the trophy for best screenplay, A Touch of Sin contains various interlinking stories that take you through the richly textured labyrinth of a nation. A corporate boss severs payments to his poor workers in a village, and offers a bag of flour to whoever sings and dances for him at his arrival in his private jet. A migrant worker in a phone manufacturing factory has to choose between working for a warm bed but no pay, and fleeing to another town to earn money, but losing his respect. A receptionist at a sauna has to choose between rendering the customers some extra services or being thrashed and fired for not working to her potential. A sex worker has to choose between living a comfortable life satisfying her clients and leaving her life behind for true love.
Those aren't exactly cheerful themes and Zhangke injects some extremely dark comedy into every segment to make them all the more unsettling. It never comes across as poverty porn because the film satirizes the tyranny of the country and the vast social divide between the rich and the poor. All of the segments are based on real life incidents, the likes of which are generally ignored by the Chinese mainstream media. Hilariously, Zhangke learned of the stories through a Twitter-like client used predominantly in the country. And like in his previous films his frames are simple but effective still shots that just let the characters dehumanise and break down both physically and psychologically. He doesn't shy away from taking potshots at Foxconn, Apple, and other big firms that have set up plants in the country and have been profiting from cheap labour for decades now. It also makes you ask yourself – if the Chinese workers are paid more money, would you pay more for your new iPhone?
The capitalist economy of the US is currently on the red button for having a gigantic gap between the top 1% earners and the poor, but China, despite being a different communist economy, simply keeps growing because the workers are pretty much unofficial slaves. Once every year, China is plunged into chaos as a hundred million workers travel back to their villages for the New Year's holiday – it's the world's largest human migration that exposes a nation tragically caught between its rural past, industrial present and digital future. The pollution is so high in Shanghai the visibility sometimes becomes nil. Recently it was shown that the unnaturally murky weather in the US coasts was due to the pollution blown by the wind from China over the sea. In short, the people in the country are psychologically fractured, and are no different from robots in an assembly line. All this commentary exists within the deep layers of A Touch of Sin, and it naturally becomes one of the most important films of the year.
Mihir Fadnavis is a film critic and certified movie geek who has consumed more movies than meals