Winner of Best Screenplay at the 2013 Festival de Cannes, Chinese writer/director Zhangke Jia‘s latest work 天注定 [A Touch of Sin] is a sprawling drama depicting his country’s contemporary struggles amidst its ever-growing economy. While we’d love to say how more money and financial success is crucial to finding increased peace and harmony amongst a people, we all know the reality usually breeds corruption, greed, and violence between those who have acquired the spoils and those left watching themselves and their kin helplessly standby as poor as they’ve ever been. It doesn’t matter whether you’re located in the rural mining towns of the Shanxi province or the southern metropolis that is Guangzhou, there will always be a class hierarchy to follow and the mounting pressure to break-free by any means necessary.
Jia shows us this truth by following four disparate characters from different parts of the country that connect in only the most minor of ways (like passing on the road or riding the same train out of town). Each is down on his/her luck with a hope for something more before tragedy either strikes or is wrought in a fit of abuse fatefully used as a means to feel something other than the weight of the world crushing their spirit. Miner Dahai (Wu Jiang), migrant worker Zhao San (Baoqiang Wang), receptionist Xiao Yu (Jia’s real life wife Tao Zhao), and young journeyman Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo) all have the potential for success if only a stroke of luck could hit. The understandable thought that only bad deeds get rewarded, however, makes such forward progress impossible to believe.
The stress and injustice of watching those once close to you rise in power while you remain stagnant is seen in the first chapter with Dahai’s perpetual complaints of corruption courtesy of the government officials and corporate entities keeping them afloat. So wrapped up in his conspiracy theories, he cannot see that he was once someone the people respected and someone with a personal connection to those he’s “fighting”. Rather than see their success as a possibility to strive towards, however, he sees it as something to destroy. Pushed to the brink once his accusations are met with a physically brutal response, he’s left with only one option. Sadly, there are simply too many marginalized citizens like Dahai who feel so alone at the bottom that they fight to ensure no one is left at the top.
This remorselessly brutal climax to Dahai’s story—like the other three acts—is ripped from the headlines of a not-so-distant past. We in America know its theme too well, turning its tragic origins and ubiquity into a joke to marginalize further with the phrase “Going Postal”. There’s a strange sensation of complicity with what Dahai does to those he thinks have wronged his community, though, and perhaps even an implicit condoning of his actions once the smile of relief spreads across his face after the massacre is complete. Some will hail him as a hero of the people, disgusted by his process to inflict change yet not necessarily against the result. It’s the type of mob mentality that goes hand-in-hand with progress; that constant idea of entitlement some find more powerful than pride in a hard day’s work.
It isn’t the first burst of violence we see, however. That comes from Zhou San’s prowess with a gun when opposite a group of muggers biting off more than they can chew. Bored of the good life he sees eat those who love him alive, he seeks to escape to more exciting realms of adventure and crime where death gains meaning through infamy. He becomes a willing abuser like the boys who tried to scare him; a bully bred from poverty to contrast the angry men of Guangzhou looking to bleed those under their thumb dry. Like the innocents San targets, Xiao Yu’s sauna employee is minding her business when an aggressor underestimates the pain she’s experienced that already broke her resolve. Unsurprisingly she snaps in self-defense when fighting proves much more satisfying than flight ever could.
Not everyone has the mental instability, sociopathic urge, or blind courage respectively of those above to take the life of another when the existential crisis at hand has all fingers pointing to him/herself. This is where Xiao Hui’s tale arrives to portray the exploitation of those sans power and victimized by bad salaries, unfair business practices, moral vacuums, and the impatience of dependents ensuring the screw is turned from both the personal and professional arena. Always running away and forever finding himself alone in a world that appears to only want to take and take and take without giving anything back will drive anyone to the edge. When it happens to someone like Dahai, he goes after those making his life miserable. For Xiao Hui, his enemy becomes the defeated face looking back through his mirror every morning.
Writing about these universal themes and thinking about the actors’ effortless depictions of characters finding the capacity to do what they do in response to the same struggles afflicting us just made me increase my final score. What on the surface looks like stark examples of humanity’s vicious rage and animalistic tendencies becomes an honest portrayal of real life and our tenuous hold on decency when the same rules we’re to follow have long since been forgotten by those surrounding us. Jia takes care to shoot each altercation unfiltered and devoid of salaciousness so the victims can be seen as the flawed, deserving, and/or unlucky creatures they are. As impossibly random it is to think about catching a senseless bullet, we could just as easily find ourselves pulling the trigger if the perfect storm of circumstances leaves us no choice.
 Jiang Wu as Dahai in A TOUCH OF SIN, a film by Jia Zhang-Ke.
 Wang Baoqiang as Zhao San in A TOUCH OF SIN, a film by Jia Zhang-Ke.
 Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu in A TOUCH OF SIN, a film by Jia Zhang-Ke.
Credit: Kino Lorber, Inc