After watching A Touch of Sin (2013), I was unsure how I wanted to write about it, so I looked up other critical appraisals of the film. While doing so I found a quote from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who harshly calls the film a “sellout”:
Over five years later, now that Iʻve recently caught up with Jiaʻs episodic A Touch of Sin, I must confess that I find myself more than a little baffled by colleagues of mine who have praised these earlier films and now seem to find little difficulty in placing this semi-desperate sellout effort on the same plateau as his previous work. Despite the sincerity and urgency of the filmʻs political content, its reduction of potentially interesting characters to pop-movie stereotypes seems to be at least partially and grimly acknowledged (and autocritiqued) by Jiaʻs casting himself in a cameo as a customer at a sleazy upscale bordello. This is the only time Iʻve felt disappointed or betrayed by any of his films.
Itʻs ironic that Rosenbaum thinks the filmʻs genre stylizations are only a surface veneer betraying a lack of interior character depth, because his reading of it is also similarly superficial. His accusations of Jia stooping to philistine spectacle in A Touch of Sin arenʻt isolated, and other critics have joined him in saying Jia has in some way become a “sellout”, or at least less rebellious, with his later films. I am perhaps willing to concede the latter point, but what he loses from his blacklisted rebel days he gains in a brilliant political subversiveness that reaches a much wider audience.
It seems to me that the only sin Jia commits is pivoting away from the more obvious arthouse tropes of his earlier work, and his nuance is met by hyperbolics. A Touch of Sin embodies a quintessentially “Jia” aesthetic (created in large part by Yu Lik-Waiʻs smeary, slightly overexposed cinematography) while also mixing in the violent praxis of the South Korean geopolitical film with the historical intertextuality of its wuxia references. I see this not as semi-desperation on Jiaʻs part, whatever that entails, but a willingness to experiment which has only steadily increased throughout his career.
Even more dubiously, Rosenbaum singles out A Touch of Sin as discontinuous from Jiaʻs previous work, despite it being his most contentious mainstream film amongst state censors. Where he sees “pop-movie stereotypes”, I see a reappropriation of genre form that casts its characters as outsider underdogs embodying the specifically Chinese heroism of wuxia fiction, in order to make the point that they cannot be generalized from a political perspective. I saw one review (not by Rosenbaum) say that Jia has “ripped” his stories here from the headlines. I think itʻs more appropriate to say heʻs rescued them, and given them their own autonomy.
This autonomy is what makes A Touch of Sin more than a cynical, ideological piece of misery porn weʻd soon forget about. Jia restores the individual humanity of his characters through their violent acts. It may seem morbid to say that killing can be a recognition of our humanity. But it is a statement the characters make beyond all other recourse to show the world that they are angry, and that they are not despondent. The brutality of their actions also helps them reclaim autonomy in that it makes them psychologically inaccessible to our empathy — their actions cannot be rationalized away.
When the film goes violent, it does so jarringly, switching gears from social realism to something more expressionistic. Jia makes the force of violence in the film immediate and present, in order to counter the distance that media control has attempted to place between his compatriots and the real-world incidents the film is inspired by. Itʻs a direct rebuke to the online censorship he witnessed firsthand, and the way these incidents were handled by the mainstream media in China. Jia never makes this explicit, of course, but he implies it numerous times throughout the film.
Take for example the overturned truck at the filmʻs beginning, with its load of tomatoes spilled out across the road. Itʻs a painterly scene, complete with pyrotechnics, which finds a mirror in the train disaster depicted later in the film, a reference to the Wenzhou train collision. This reflection of the rural onto the modern suggests that the stakes involved in this economic transition increase when the former gives way to the latter. Corruption, injustice, and oppression become more efficiently systematic and bureaucratic, and their violent externalizations similarly increase in scale as well.
These incidents donʻt get mentioned again after they are introduced. Theyʻre merely representatives of the kind of breakdown of transportation and economic systems that Jiaʻs films often concern themselves with. What is of note here is the way we experience the truck accident in a visceral way, whereas we witness the train collision via an apathetic news broadcast. Itʻs this apathy that Jia is trying to save us from. If he uses spectacle, he does so the way a King Hu film might employ wire-fu choreography — to offer up an ecstatic phenomenological experience (the feeling of fighting, or killing) that we cannot turn ourselves away from.
Rosenbaum has also implied (though not in the above quote) that the film is politically toothless because it doesnʻt engage with its real world events except to stage them dramatically. In essence, heʻs calling it exploitative. I think the only thing being exploited here is our belief that a film in and of itself can be a solidarity-producing machine, which is a fantasy Jia upends. The work of a political filmmaker, after all, is not to equate cinema with politics, but to drive the apparatus of filmmaking in a political way. This is something Jia has always done and continues to do even in his mainstream films.
The possibility of solidarity is palpable in the film, but it is never achieved. If this were a historical wuxia film, the characters would unite from far corners of the land to fight injustice as a team and win. But that never happens, for the experience of modernity is one of disconnection, one in which we are so close yet so far apart. Jia illustrates this by having the narratives in the film overlap ever so slightly. All his characters are wanderers (another wuxia trope) and though they brush past each other they never recognize each other as more than faces in the crowd.
This is the reality of a world linked by modern transportation and global supply chains. Weʻre all around each other, but weʻre never there for each other. This is the challenge Jia leaves us with: to reach out to one another. His film is an affirmation of the kind of activism that Chinese citizens at large deployed in response to these incidents. When people compared Deng Yujiao to Zhang Ziyiʻs character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yu Jiao-long, they were doing much the same thing Jia does in the film with the character of Xiao Yu. The film is only exploitative if you treat the characters with the same oppressive disdain that leaves them dispossessed.
Lastly, for Jiaʻs film to be as politically stunted as Rosenbaum thinks it is, it would have to paint a picture of hopelessness. A Touch of Sinʻs final shot of the workersʻ collective gaze solidifies it beyond all doubt in my mind as a film that is ultimately hopeful for China. Itʻs an invitation to the viewer, for what could possibly be more politically subversive than hope?