ROBERT DYLAN FIELDS WRITES – Globalization is a heated issue in China. Even as the country has synced with the rest of the world economically — lifting millions out of poverty in the process — some Chinese fear too much integration threatens the very foundation Chinese culture. As a populace that traditionally leans toward collectivism (as emphasized by the ethics of Confucianism) they fear this national characteristic is threatened by the hyper-individualistic mindset of the West.
Sixth generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke reflects on this fear in his latest gritty crime drama, A Touch of Sin. This film tells the stories of four protagonists who never meet each other. What they have in common is that they all live in modern China, dealing with dramatic and violent changes they undergo as their nation globalizes. The first story is that of a miner in northern China, who is disgusted not only at his boss for embezzling most of the company’s money rather than using it for his poor workers, but even more so at his coworkers for being apathetic towards the situation. Since none of his coworkers, having grown accustomed to an individualistic society, refuse to protest, the lone miner takes matters into his own shotgun-clenched hands, sporting a smirk that’d make No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigur appear weak. The second story follows a migrant worker who becomes a professional criminal after illegally acquiring a handgun. He is more than willing to commit homicide so long as it suits his needs of acquiring quick cash from civilians seeking revenge. The third story focuses on a female sauna receptionist who experiences a series of violent attacks and humiliations following the discovery of her affair. The final story is that of a young man who drifts from one unrewarding job to another with no promise of attaining a successful career in his life. He eventually meets a woman whom he could potentially have a meaningful relationship with, yet both are far too absorbed in satisfying their own individualistic needs.
What each of these stories share is not only the idea that globalization and individualism have caused China to degrade into a cesspool of crime and immorality, but also the fact that each of these characters are virtually alone, living in a society where it’s every man – or woman – for himself. Many of the scenes feature the protagonists walking alone, smoking alone, and eating alone. Even when they are amongst company, speaking with friends, family members, or coworkers, there is no genuine affinity between the protagonists and their companions. Of the many principles of Confucianism, one of the leading principles is that of social harmony and the importance of fulfilling five essential relationships for a society to thrive: ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, and friend to friend. In this film, there is no true social harmony as the protagonists only act in favor of their own individual benefit. In a recent interview, with the Los Angeles Times, Jia Zhangke commented that he “was motivated by anger” in the process of drafting the screenplay for his film: “These are people who feel they have no other option but violence… There’s suddenly a big dose of violence in everyday life… But the problem is that new events keep coming, so old ones keep being forgotten.”
A Touch of Sin has already received a nomination for a Golden Palm at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival along with an award for best screenplay, which was presented to Jia. With a rivetingly dark screenplay combined with cinematography that makes viewers feel as alone as the characters captured in the lens of the camera, A Touch of Sin is truly one of the year’s most hauntingly beautiful films.