Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Touch of Sin (orig. Tian zhu ding) [2013]

MPAA (UR would be R)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
AsianWiki listing

NPR (M. Jenkins) review
CCTV (Zh. Rui) article

ChinaFile (Asia Society) extensive video discussion / program w. director

ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (M. McCreadie) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

A Touch of Sin (orig. Tian zhu ding) [2013] (written and directed by Zhangke Jia [IMDb] one of China's best known contemporary film-makers) is provocative and often quite violent film that if not for it having been made in China by a Chinese film-maker (basically ignoring that country's censors) and serving-up a absolutely scathing indictment of corruption and money-worshipping excess among many of that country's petty elites today, many American and Western viewers would, with eyes-rolling, dismiss the film as a Charles Bronson [IMDb] / Death Wish [IMDb] style "revenge flick."

It's of course more complicated than that.  The makers of the various American 70s+ era vigilante justice films (think of not just the Charles Bronson" [IMDb] / Death Wish [IMDb] films but also those featuring Clint Eastwood [IMDb] as "Dirty Harry" [IMDb] to say nothing of most of Quentin Tarantino's [IMDb] early films) would all say that they were heavily influenced by the Bruce Lee [IMDb] and other "martial arts films" coming out of Hong Kong at the time.  Those stories, in turn, didn't come out of nowhere.  Instead, they come out of a surprisingly long (Dynasty-to-Dynasty...) Chinese storytelling tradition of wuxia (martial arts) and youxia ("wandering force") heroes who rise-up "out of the masses" to challenge wicked overlords and restore justice to the land.  

So film-maker Zhangke Jia [IMDb] strung together four vignettes based on actual events widely reported-on and commented-on by users of China's "Weibo" (Twitter-like) social networking site in which wuxia or youxia like heroes "rose up" out of Chinese society TODAY to challenge local injustices that "cried out to heaven."

These included the story of a former miner named Dahai (played by Wu Jiang) who went on a killing spree in a sleepy provincial town after being humiliated for complaining after the town's mayor sold-off the town's publicly owned mine to a private firm and then the mayor used the public moneys gained from the sale to buy himself and his wife a private jet (so that they could more easily travel to Hong Kong and other wealthier parts out "south east.")

The second vignette told the story of a young man Zhao San (played by Boaquiang Wang) returning on his motorbike to his hometown somewhere presumably near the recently built Three Gorges Dam for the occasion of his mother's 70th birthday.  After the party, his mother reprimands him as he's supposedly traveling about, working "odd jobs" and to send money "back home" (to her).  But he's not exactly sending back a "steady income."  Well there's a reason for that ... he's not holding back on her, but ...

Another vignette involved a young woman named Xiao Yu (played in the film by the director's own wife Tao Zhao) who while herself a flawed person (introduced to viewers as the girlfriend of a traveling businessman and one who worked as a receptionist at a seamy hotel "sauna" rest-stop in another provincial town between two major cities, one inland and the other along China's thriving south-east coast) found herself bullied two extortionists who wanted to "buy her."  "Gentlemen, proceed indoors, we're a sauna, you can have ANY WOMAN you want here, but I'm just a receptionist."  But they wanted HER.  One of them took out a big wad of bills AND BEGAN HITTING HER WITH IT saying that he could "buy anything" and that he wanted to BUY HER.  Well, good old Xiao pulled a knife out of her handbag, the same knife that her businessman lover couldn't take on the train with him when he went off on his way that afternoon and ...

The final vignette involves a young, good-looking man named Xiao Hui (played by Lanshan Luo) who lives and works in the glamorous "south east" of China, BUT ... he finds himself better-looking than competent.  In his struggle to find a job that he's both GOOD AT and PROUD OF, he becomes friends with a young similarly attractive _buddhist_ prostitute.  Yup, she plays the games (dressing-up at times as a tight plunging-necklined, micro-mini skirted, stiletto heeled jack-booted "Red Guard" for visiting Hong Kong/Singaporey businessmen) and partly enjoys them (she's got a pink-"skinned" iPad).  But she also does truly "random acts of kindness" (saves gold fish ...).  Why?  She tells Xiao Hui, "I have to do a lot of good deeds to stand a chance in my next life ..."  Xiao Hui helps her "liberate" said gold fish from the hotel / night-club where they work, but it all seems hopeless to him ...

So this then is the image of China that Zhangke Jia [IMDb] presents in his film, one that is both NEW and OH SO CORRUPT in the TIMELESS, OLD-FASHIONED WAY.  And interestingly enough he suggests that ALL THE SAGES from YES EVEN MARY AND JESUS, to the BUDDHA, to the CHINESE SAGES OF OLD, to MAO ZEDONG (there are pointed references to ALL OF THEM) would be APPALLED by the money-worshiping SOUL-LESSNESS of much of CHINA TODAY.

But then, should one be surprised?  It's all, like it's always been: "touched by Sin ..." An interesting, thought-provoking if often quite violent film ...

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1 comment:

  1. I would like to note here that the Xuwia style of storytelling reminded me a lot actually of the story-telling that exists in the Biblical Book of Judges. In both cases, seemingly "random people" were lifted-up "out of the people" to restore justice (often quite violently) to the land. I would also note that even in the Old Testament (the Book of Judges' last verse) this approach to "restoring justice" is not considered "ideal." YET, the whole of the Old Testament also recalls crimes (usually involving the abuse of widows, orphans and the poor in general) that "cry out to heaven" for justice.