A Touch Sin

02/06/2022

Depredations and Degradations

To hear that earlier Jia Zhangke’s films had been financed through Beat Kitano’s production company might have seemed surprising. Although the director had worked on several earlier occasions with Office Kitano (including on The World), A Touch of Sin is the first one that shares anything of the Japanese director’s violent imprint. Here, the touch of sin has too A Touch of Zen, just as Kitano films like Hana-Bi and Sonatine possess a brutal aggression alongside a need for the quiet life. Jia invokes here the 70s martial arts filmmaker King Hu: in films, where “he addresses the subject of political oppression and the violent reactions of different individuals. I wanted to make a film about violence, too, but I couldn’t find a cinematic language that I was happy with. Then I thought about martial arts movies, about the same things that happened in the past as now.” (Electric Sheep

The violence however seems neither one thing nor the other (not quite Kitano and not quite King Hu), without this being an insult. It is neither as elliptical as Kitano’s work nor as balletic as Hu’s. Kitano’s action sequences showed the influence of Robert Bresson’s editing procedures: fragments of an event. Meanwhile, Hu’s A Touch of Zen and his other work influenced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The House of Flying Daggers. Jia skips the ellipsis and the mid-air movements but holds to the brutality of Kitano and the exaggeration of Hu. For a director known for films that usually play up the small details of small lives, of people getting by in arduous circumstances often matched by the length of the takes and the length of the films (Platform is 154 minutes; The World 143, Ash is the Purest White, 150), the violence can seem surprising. Is this because we don’t expect it from a Jia Zhangke film, that Jia acknowledged difficulties in filming the action or that an aspect of the film seems contrary to the aggression it depicts? When speaking of the film, Jia said: “for me the biggest challenges were the action parts, because I am not used to shooting action to that extent. So I had to ask myself questions like: how should a character shoot, or use a knife? How should the victims fall? This was all new to me.” (Electric Sheep) Perhaps it feels like the violence has intruded upon the film rather than possessing a violence visited upon it by the characters. If Jia is usually seen as a realist filmmaker this is nevertheless a broad church capable of many denominations. It can include Michael Haneke and the Dardennes, Kiarostami and Bela Tarr. Stylistically they have almost nothing in common but if any of them were to introduce a scene of a Mexican stand-off, or a curving camera as someone prepares to take out a rival figure, we might believe they have left their aesthetic principles behind. 

They are perhaps realists in a Freudian sense, when the great psychoanalyst differentiated between the reality principle and the pleasure principle: “An ego thus educated has become ‘reasonable’; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also at bottom seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished.” (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis) We don’t expect the reality principle from John WickThe Hateful Eight or The Dark Knight — the pleasure principle reigns. If there is violence in a Haneke film or a Dardennes work it is an intrusion and a responsibility. It might be the suicide of the half-brother in Hidden or the woman in The Unknown Girl who knocks on the door of a young doctor’s surgery late in the evening, and the doctor ignores the knocking only to find out that the woman in need was found dead in the river the next day. Such moments hold to the reality principle and fall into the realism both filmmakers practice, albeit in very different ways. This is the sort of realism Jia Zhangke’s work has consistently practiced too, but here he leaves it behind for what can seem like the principle of pleasure; an approach to violence that can be deemed ‘entertaining’.

We will say more about how Jia films this violence and whether it is entertaining, but first it is worth noting that Jia’s relationship with realism has been vexed for some time — and never more so than in a couple of films he made which were understandably assumed to be documentative: Still Life takes a close sociological look at areas where a huge dam is being built but also has a moment with a flying saucer, and another where a building launches like a spaceship, with Jia adopting computer-generated imagery. In 24 City, we start to notice that this apparent documentary account of the rapid changes in Chengdu has subjects who are actors playing characters: including Joan Chen and Zhao Tao (Jia’s wife and frequent star of his films). There is a history, then, of the playful and the provocative even in films that are serious social documents. 24 City mixes real people with fictional ones as it has direct to camera interviews with various people who found the changes very hard, with the younger generation also talking about the sacrifices the older generation has made to make their lives better. The character played by Zhao Tao is one of those daughters, but someone unaware of the film’s background would assume she is another person describing her family’s experience and not the director’s wife and muse playing a character doing so. In Still Life, the film is chiefly a documentative examination of the destructive dam being built on the Yangtze river, and combines the vivid exploration of a changing environment as towns disappear and new ones are built, with a semi-fictional tale taking place there. (The central character, Jia Zhangke’s coal mining cousin, is played by Han Sanming playing Han Sanming, and Zhao Tao has a key role as well, but as a fictional character) Clearly, Jia isn’t one to play by hard and fast generic rules if he isn’t inclined to play fair to fictional and factual expectations. 

Turning now to A Touch of Sin’s violence,. we can see how it seems a type of cinema that belongs to the fantasy principle rather than the reality principle, and yet at the same time the sources for each of the three stories he tells (with an epilogue and prologue), and that all contain aggression, are based on fact. It is as if Jia wants the brutality of fictional violence to meet with the force of anecdotal reality and that will generate a contrary force. In the film’s third episode, Xiaoyu (Zhao) works as a receptionist in a Hubei parlour and tells her lover that she cannot accept their affair any longer. He is a married man who will be working elsewhere and she gives him six months to make a decision. In the meantime, she finds herself put upon by the wife and a couple of heavies telling her to leave the husband alone. There we see Xiaoyu sitting at reception, a bored, far-away look on her face, filmed by Jia from outside so we see her through the window, and then when someone steps in Xiaoyu offers a warm greeting that quickly turns troubled as she sees the expression on his face as the film cuts to a medium close on Xiaoyu. The film then pans to a woman entering the frame who asks if she is Xiaoyu and slaps her hard across the face. Another cut shows her kicked out onto the street by the first man, where a second man appears and throws her against a car. As she is thrown into the air and against the vehicle, Jia moves from a medium close up to a cut from the side. It is the sort of extraneous cut that a realist mode would be unlikely to offer as it would usually stay at a remove from the violence it depicts. If the initial moment of her sitting at reception looking reflective gives the film its realist interest as it focuses on a person’s contemplative state, the side-elevation shot against the car shows a director interested in the action as readily as the violence. 

What turns violence into action in a film isn’t easy to discern even if we may invoke Freud’s differentiation to understand an aspect of this difference as sensibility — to see whether the filmmaker is interested in the aggression they show as possessing a relationship with the world or with film. This isn’t an either/or but perhaps a continuum; yet nevertheless so far along one end of the continuum will a Marvel film be, and so far at the other end a Dardennes work, that it can seem binary. When a filmmaker like Jia utilises an element of the hyperbolic within the context of the verisimilitude he still sees as important, it allows us to see how that hyperbole is created. It is in that side elevation shot that the viewer sees Jia adopting ‘action’ to show the violence, to make it cinematically vivid even if it risks creating an exaggeration that brings to mind fantasy films rather than realist works. After all, were we to witness violence on the street, in a pub, or a club, our angle on it would be singular, not multiple. What makes violence action is centrally those extra angles, and this is what Jia provides in the sequence with Xiaoyu. 

Later, in the same Heubei section, a couple of gangsters come to the place where Xiaoyu works and one tries to persuade her to join him; she makes clear she is a receptionist and not a masseuse. He comes back three times to the room she is in and after the third, we see her sitting, breathing heavily, and clearly distressed. On this third visit, he has taken the other gangster, and on the fourth, the other gangster comes instead and starts to beat her up. She pulls out a knife and stabs him several times while the camera moves in a circular motion around the action. The shot may bring to mind the film’s opening moments, when a hitman takes out three others and the camera circles around the killer in shots that resemble the curving camera movements vital to many a contemporary action film. Yet at the same time, Jia wants to create a work that reflects contemporary China and isn’t only making a film to please an audience. Indeed, the very space he creates between the generic and the naturalistic, between violent action and social depiction, is likely to generate displeasure. 

We can see this most clearly in the third section. Here we have a young man’s suicide offered brutally. He jumps off a balcony and the film cuts from a close up of Xiaohui climbing onto the balcony to a long shot of the building as he jumps and lands on the ground. The suicide is a migrant worker, who has travelled from Hunan to Guangdong, hoping to find opportunities far away from his home. Jia shows Xiaohui initially taking a job in another town after accidentally responsible for a fellow factory worker’s injury. Instead of working without pay as he would be expected to do, thus compensating the worker who cannot now work by working and giving the other man his wages, he gets a job at a hostess club, falling for an employee there who works to send money home for her young daughter. She is in no position to start a relationship with Xiaohui and we soon see why when part of her job is servicing her clients in elaborate fantasy scenarios. Xiaohui sees her at work and leaves, taking yet another job, but aspects of his past he cannot escape. His mother insists he must send money home but he hasn’t yet been paid in his new job, and the injured employee and his friends show up and threaten to give him a beating. With a lovelorn heart, no money, thugs after him and a disappointed mother, we aren’t too surprised that he cannot go on, but Jia isn’t shy in showing the terrible deed itself. 

This third section was based on numerous suicides during a three-year period at Foxconn. The company “…is the single largest employer in mainland China; there are 1.3 million people on its payroll. Worldwide, among corporations, only Walmart and McDonald’s employ more. As many people work for Foxconn as live in Estonia.” (Guardian) It is as though Jia uses the violence not chiefly as a vivid way of showing anger and tension in people’s lives, though it certainly does that, but also to generate a broader brutality that the violence reflects. In other words, it releases pent up personal aggression and at the same time reveals a broader social indifference. Jiwei Xiao in a superb article on the film talks “of the indifferent bystanders”, “the apathetic gaze of passersby”, and wonders if the violent outbursts in A Touch of Sin can be viewed as Jia Zhangke’s answer to Lu Xun’s “call to arms,” a call to reject one’s position as an indifferent spectator and take action." "In interviews, Jia compares his camera to his characters’ weapons”, Jiwei Xiao says, “the directness and shock of violence is intended to jolt his audience into a new recognition of Chinese reality, one that in the last decade or so has been reshaped by dizzying economic growth as well as rampant corruption, astounding greed, and an abysmal gap between rich and poor.” (Film Quarterly

After Xiaoyu’s beating by the wife's heavies, Xiaoyu gets up and is obviously in pain but we see in the shot a bystander eating some nuts or sweets with no concern for Xiaoyu at all. In the first section, partly why Da Hai (Jiang Wu) goes on a killing spree is that everyone around him seems unfazed by the fortunes being made by the wealthy businessman who employs Da Hai and others, a businessman who has exploited the village for personal gain. After Da Hai makes a very deliberate spectacle of himself at the airport when the businessman and his wife come to visit and, having spoiled the full-blown welcome, Da Hai gets beaten. Instead of seeing a man who has tried to stand up to the forces of power, the other employees nickname him Mr Golf: the thug’s swinging movement with a spade as he battered Da Hai resembling a golfer’s swing and Da Hai’s head the ball.

Many a violent film shows brutality but it doesn’t distinguish between the releasing of violence and the revealing of violence. It rarely indicates that the aggression a character metes out need be part of a broader brutality that in some ways is more frightening than the representational force that a character deploys. That woman’s look of unconcern after the attack on Xiaoyu contains within it a societal severity indicating that everyone is on their own. The point of many a violent film is that people are not, whether it is Batman coming to the rescue of various innocents, or a gunslinger protecting the town. The environment is often deemed to be fine once the rotten apples have been removed. That removal requires frequently extreme violence but the purpose is to eradicate evil not to show its permeation. Hence violence is released all the better so that it reveals a general decency and not a more general indecency. Jia’s film uses an apparently similar approach to the violent as many a mainstream film but wants to show that the aggression doesn’t go away when a violent act is committed; it illustrates instead how fundamentally brutal the culture has become.

This is no doubt why Jia insisted on making a film that would use action sequences but at the same time ground the situations in the actual misery of people’s lives, making clear that aggression is no sort of solution if it stems from a broader indifference. The point of the classic western is that violence is the necessary evil for the greater good. Speaking of the western in Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, Robert B Pippin quotes Rousseau: “the savage lives in himself; sociable man always outside himself, is capable of living only in the opinions of others and, so to speak, derives the sentiment of his own existence only from their judgement.” One way of looking at this is to see that in the Western and many a film reliant on its basic structure, the gunslinger is the savage who lives inside himself and the sociable man the various members of the town community who might not be able to do what the gunslinger can do but believes in the justice he metes out all the better so that society can become more civilised. The gunman is thus homoeopathic, if you like, rather than sociopathic: he is a poisonous element all the better to remove a far greater poison. A healthy social body would have no need for a gunman but the western community in The Magnificent Seven and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance have bad elements that need a lesser evil to take out a greater evil. The purpose, though, is to release a modicum of violence that needn’t reveal a greater violence in the culture. 

What Jia does is adopt the tropes of the action film and western, but doesn’t assume the moral expectation that a small amount of violence will make things better. It becomes instead just a symptom of how bad things are. “I would say the characters in the film are angry—or rather, they are in a state of anger. I wanted to use the film in a very powerful way to convey that expression. But the film itself is an attempt to subvert the notion that violence can only be responded to with violence, because I do not agree with that form of solution.” (The Dissolve)

Usually, when filmmakers wish to show a resistance to violence they do so by means that counter the spectacle of it; that it is filmed in a manner that makes it perspectivally realistic at it shows it from one troubled angle, or perhaps distanciated, so that we have to question what it means in a broader cultural context than the diegesis itself. Haneke offers the former in Happy Days when someone is punched and the camera keeps its distance from a watching car, and the latter in Funny Games when the two characters rewind the very film footage we have thus far been watching. Jia instead incorporates the generic all the better to comment on the social, a risky venture perhaps when such an approach often counters the social and gives credence to the individual action. It isn’t even as though Jia absorbs New Hollywood’s attempt to combine effective, well-choreographed violence with both a recognition of the messiness of it and the social impact of the mayhem. Whether it is the shootout the locals get caught in the midst of in The Wild Bunch, or the hotheaded Sonny beating someone up in The Godfather, the directors (Peckinpah and Coppola respectively), offer new levels of filmmaking skill to accompany the societal incorporation. The sequences are brilliantly done but this wouldn’t only be because the directors wanted the raise the ante in cinematic action but that they wanted to incorporate with the sequences a sense of how violence intrudes upon people’s lives. In The Godfather, when Sonny chases after his brother-in-law and attacks him for beating his sister, we see numerous locals standing there unsure what to do and unable to get too involved as a couple of Sonny’s crew are there to push people away when it looks like they might try and stop the one-sided fight. When Coppola shows us wide shots as well as closes ups, this isn’t only to offer a better view of the action; it is also to register that the fight is taking place in a social milieu where people live their daily lives. In one wide shot, we see one of the kids who has been playing outside pulled away by a heavy as if he hangs around too close to the railings he may get landed with a stray punch. 

Yet this isn’t the approach Jia adopts either. The violence is generic but though it is filmed like entertainment the broader context doesn’t coincide with it. One sees social commentary beyond the action but not quite in the action, while in the examples from The Wild Bunch and The Godfather, the directors are determined to incorporate the action in the social as they want to do action as well as any filmmakers before them but incorporate it within New Hollywood’s simultaneous interest in realism as we have defined it: closer to Freud’s reality principle than fantasy principle. Why, we might ask does Jia want fantasy violence within a plausible milieu; one so plausible that he bases the film on actual cases?  

Perhaps it rests on Jia wishing to show ‘the state of anger’, as he calls it, finding an outlet without realistically assuming it will pass for a solution. When in a western, or a generic vigilante film, the hero takes out others, the purpose is to show that the consequences are both individually and socially positive: that low-lives, the corrupt and the evil have been taken care of and society can move on, from Death Wish to Kill Bill. But what happens here is that the film moves on rather than the characters: it moves on to the next situation which suggests that while taking the law into one’s own hands might potentially make the characters and the audience feel better it is a feeling that cannot last — it doesn’t resolve the problem but proves that it is part of it. It suggests that the characters have been degraded while the point of generic revenge is that they have become heroic. Jiwei Xiao sees that Jia’“praises the “rebellious spirit” of his characters, comparing them to warriors in Chinese wuxia (martial arts) fiction.” But “not unaware of their lack of heroic means and chivalry, he also calls them “canxia” (残侠, impaired knight-errant).” (Film Quarterly) However, their refusal to accept the conformism expected of them needn’t be any more than a very temporary solution for their own states of anger; they can’t be much use to either themselves beyond the scenario, nor to the society more broadly. One reason Jia adopts aspects of the martial arts film is perhaps to register the disjunction between how in fantasy such heroic deeds can be optimistic but in reality are usually pessimistic. Jia wishes to register the anger so that the audience can see the state China is in, but this is for a broader reverberation over direct intervention. Personally taking the law into one’s own hands indicates the weakness of the law not the strength of the individual: it is a fantasy to believe otherwise. Hence Jiwei Xiao's remarks about the violence capturing the direct shock of a rapidly re-shaped economy and society.

If we have paid so much attention thus far to the film’s approach to violent cinematic action, it would be remiss not to say a few things about the China Jia has spent twenty years chronicling, from early films like Pickpocket and Unknown Pleasures, to more recent work like A Touch of Sin and Ash is the Purest White. To give some idea of this shift one can look at the changing demographics in the city locations Jia uses in A Touch of Sin. In 1997, when Jia debuted with Pickpocket, the population of Chongqing was around 6.5 million according to Macrotrends, and is now close to 17m. Guangdong was 6 million and now has almost 16m people. “Chongqing is China's biggest city in terms of total population and land area, but it was only developed in 1997”, says Marielle Descalsota, who notes too that, “as many as 1.5 million people were displaced, and 115 towns were submerged during the course of building the dam...” (Insider) Here is a country that has been transforming at such a rate both technologically and financially that it is no wonder the individual can feel lost in the flux. GDP was 957 billion dollars in 1997 and is almost 20 trillion now. When one of the gangsters constantly smacks Xiaoyu over and over again with hard cash it is a moment of appalling violence and vulgarity but what the film wants to convey is the man’s incomprehension that money can’t buy everything. The gangster says he will smother her in cash and that is exactly what has happened to China. The gangster is odious but he reflects a prevailing mood that says if money can produce megacities in a matter of years, then who is Xiaoyu to turn her nose up to a few yuan that has put up high rises transforming numerous cities’ skylines. 

Perhaps the purpose of Jia’s film is to say that resistance must take the form of violence when money takes on the form of an absolute value, whether that violence is towards another or against oneself. In this sense, we have two murderers, an assassin and a suicide but all of the characters are involved in the problematic exchange of money. In the first section, Da Hai wants to point up the corruption involved as his village coalmine is now privatised and fortunes made by others while the miners remain poor. In the second, hired killer, San’er returns to his home city and tries to offer his estranged wife money that she turns down. As she rejects it we see out the window of this village home a skyline that seems to belong to a different century and we can assume that while her values have remained traditional, San’er’s have been transformed into the monetary. He clearly isn’t foisting cash upon her as the gangster beats Xiaoyu with hard currency, but in both instances men assume that the only value which matters is one that you can offer as monetary exchange. 

It is here where film can seem a much subtler medium than theatre, assuming the script is similar. A play could invoke a world of wealth but it couldn’t depict it. When Jia offers, in the same shot where San’er’s wife refuses his money, the high rises in the distance, it gives a meaning to the exchange greater than a simple one of the wife’s moral decency. It is part of a broader relationship with money that she is resisting, as she lives in a traditional house increasingly dwarfed by the ever-expanding city. Sure, theatre could now offer a back projection of high-rises while in the foreground we would have on the stage the humble home, but this approach creates a twofold reality that pushes the message much harder than in the filmic image, which we would assume conveys only one reality. In other words, while in cinema we will assume the one reality unless obvious that the filmmaker is using back projection (in the past) or CGI (more recently), in theatre that separation will be a necessary given of the medium. The theatre director cannot choose to put in the foreground a house and in the background high-rises without unequivocally calling attention to their presence. But film can make those high rises a reality within the same frame and at the same time needn’t call attention to their presence. 

Shortly after San’er returns to the city we see him walking along the road to the house where his wife lives. We see in the foreground, San’er strolling along a path in what amounts to countryside, and in the distance, across a lake, are the high-rises. A theatre director would be forced to make a statement and to create a visual effect in making it; a filmmaker can present a visual fact and the statement becomes implicit within it. Obviously, filmmakers can cheat and that is why we have had and have back projection and CGI. We have also noted that Jia isn’t afraid of computer-generated imagery, however absurd (Still Life) and isn’t ashamed to play tricks with the audience — casting various actors as we have noted in what looks like a documentary in 24 City. But we will assume that what he wants to show as a contemporary chronicler of the changing China is the reality of the shift, and Jia utilises a foregrounded narrative to do so. While we can watch the film and see the obvious in ground-down lives that Jia delineates towards further despair and violence, we can also see that what the film wishes to convey above all else is a value in money that may not be the film’s ethically, but happens to be undeniable in its mise-en-scene. 

Here we can think again of the third section, set in Guangdong and specifically Dongguan. Xiaohui gets off the train and we see him walking along a path in what looks like countryside before he sees in front of him a series of apartment blocks that never seem to end: there must be at least 9 within the shot before the film cuts to the canteen where we see a hundred workers in blue uniforms getting lunch. Xiaohui chats with his friend who works there as they eat outside on the balcony, and the friend proposes he take a job at a nearby nightclub. The club is as regimental as the factory but selling sex instead of technology and Xiaohui doesn’t last long when he develops feelings for a sex worker who can’t reciprocate his feelings, and there he goes, off to work in the factory with his friend. Story-wise, we are given plenty reasons for his suicide no matter if Jia offers it a little too deterministically. The injured worker from the former factory catches up with him and threatens Xiaohui with a metal bar, his mother needs some of his paycheck and he has fallen for someone who doesn’t or can’t share his feelings. We also know that he cannot just walk away from this new job either: his friend says it would look bad on him if he does. All this is narratively justifiable but what makes it implicitly rather than explicitly inexorable is the way Jia films the locations in which Xiaohui finds himself. We notice the accommodation is cramped as there are eight to a room, with four sets of bunk beds and apparently no windows. Just before he takes his life we see him sitting there before getting off his bed, going out on the landing, climbing up on the ledge and jumping off. The film cuts to the reverse angle and in medium shot the camera follows his falling body. Some form of special effect will have been created to show this falling body in one shot but we are unlikely to doubt that the location he jumps from is real enough. 

Equally, many, many workers do not kill themselves despite living in conditions similar to Xiaohui’s but Jia will include the determinacy of the plot all the better to register the appalling environment, but it is the environment that matters, with the suggestion that while few may die, many will be miserable, evident in the numerous articles about Foxconn’s dubious dealings. “A US-based rights group said there had been ‘a number of rights violations’ at a Foxconn factory in China which manufactures products for Amazon. Temporary agency workers were underpaid and overworked at the Hengyang Foxconn factory, according to China Labor Watch.” (BBC) How better to capture the misery of the worker than offering the material conditions of their situation?

Whether it be corruption or exploitation, alienation or desperation, Jia shows the collateral damage to pursuing ever-higher GDP and provocatively proposes that the only means of dealing with it is by violently hurting oneself or others. Yet this would be less the film’s ‘message’ than the exploration of its content. A filmmaker’s purpose isn’t to come up with a stance we might be inclined to agree with but delineate circumstances that are internally plausible. It doesn’t matter whether we concur or not with developments that have left China moving out of absolute poverty. “In 1990 there were more than 750 million people in China living below the international poverty line - about two-thirds of the population,” The BBC notes. “By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 - the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available - it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population).” Jia wonders if it is a price worth paying for moral destitution that leads to murder and suicide. Few can argue with the statistical fact that China is enormously richer than it was thirty years ago but an artist’s purpose is qualitative not quantitive: a higher standard of living isn’t worth much if the life of oneself or others has only monetary value and almost no other worth. The very images that Jia shows in his film of enormous urban expansion can lend themselves to a quantitative account of China’s economic rise, as corporate videos with numerous drone shots, or as a qualitative work like Jia’s showing those buildings making the humans in them and around them small and insignificant. “Every Chinese man or woman has two sides, the traditional and the modern, to their personality. The traditional aspect we obtain through the cultivation of traditional Chinese culture in our upbringing and education…that aspect is embodied in the spirit of jianghu. The other aspect is the result of modernity.” “The jianghu subculture”. Jia says, “is manifested throughout Chinese literature and cinema. For example, the classic Chinese novel Water Margin portrays how people survived the bitter period of social upheavals during the Song Dynasty. (Cineaste)

In this sense, the counterforce to alienated modernity is the presence of violent necessity; a provocative claim perhaps but one that allows at least the individual dignity against the onslaught of depradation and degregation, of corrupting forces and personal despair. 

Here, the film’s message and its purpose needn’t be the same. The film’s purpose is to show these two sides of the Chinese personality and explore how one (the culture of violent dignity) fights against the other (the industrially modernising) and leads to murder and suicide. But the film’s message, such as it is, would seem to be a little different. As Jia insists, “the character, Da Hai, is angry about the corruption of his village leaders, and he turns to violence after his fight against corruption (through China’s legal system) fails. It is the wrong way to seek justice but social problems like corruption is the main cause of the violence in the first story.” (Asian Fortune News) He would seem to speak of a space between the purpose and the meaning. A revenge film like Death Wish doesn’t seek that gap and when Vincent Canby called it “a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers” (New York Times), he makes clear that the film is a cinematic variation of the famous comment that “for every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong.” Jia’s film is a work that apparently simplifies the problem too but indicates at the same time solutions that are simple and neat aren’t right — just symptomatically revealing of China’s hyper-modernisation.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

A Touch Sin

Depredations and Degradations

To hear that earlier Jia Zhangke's films had been financed through Beat Kitano's production company might have seemed surprising. Although the director had worked on several earlier occasions with Office Kitano (including on The World), A Touch of Sin is the first one that shares anything of the Japanese director's violent imprint. Here, the touch of sin has too A Touch of Zen, just as Kitano films like Hana-Bi and Sonatine possess a brutal aggression alongside a need for the quiet life. Jia invokes here the 70s martial arts filmmaker King Hu: in films, where "he addresses the subject of political oppression and the violent reactions of different individuals. I wanted to make a film about violence, too, but I couldn't find a cinematic language that I was happy with. Then I thought about martial arts movies, about the same things that happened in the past as now." (Electric Sheep)

The violence however seems neither one thing nor the other (not quite Kitano and not quite King Hu), without this being an insult. It is neither as elliptical as Kitano's work nor as balletic as Hu's. Kitano's action sequences showed the influence of Robert Bresson's editing procedures: fragments of an event. Meanwhile, Hu's A Touch of Zen and his other work influenced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The House of Flying Daggers. Jia skips the ellipsis and the mid-air movements but holds to the brutality of Kitano and the exaggeration of Hu. For a director known for films that usually play up the small details of small lives, of people getting by in arduous circumstances often matched by the length of the takes and the length of the films (Platform is 154 minutes; The World 143, Ash is the Purest White, 150), the violence can seem surprising. Is this because we don't expect it from a Jia Zhangke film, that Jia acknowledged difficulties in filming the action or that an aspect of the film seems contrary to the aggression it depicts? When speaking of the film, Jia said: "for me the biggest challenges were the action parts, because I am not used to shooting action to that extent. So I had to ask myself questions like: how should a character shoot, or use a knife? How should the victims fall? This was all new to me." (Electric Sheep) Perhaps it feels like the violence has intruded upon the film rather than possessing a violence visited upon it by the characters. If Jia is usually seen as a realist filmmaker this is nevertheless a broad church capable of many denominations. It can include Michael Haneke and the Dardennes, Kiarostami and Bela Tarr. Stylistically they have almost nothing in common but if any of them were to introduce a scene of a Mexican stand-off, or a curving camera as someone prepares to take out a rival figure, we might believe they have left their aesthetic principles behind.

They are perhaps realists in a Freudian sense, when the great psychoanalyst differentiated between the reality principle and the pleasure principle: "An ego thus educated has become 'reasonable'; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also at bottom seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished." (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis) We don't expect the reality principle from John Wick, The Hateful Eight or The Dark Knight the pleasure principle reigns. If there is violence in a Haneke film or a Dardennes work it is an intrusion and a responsibility. It might be the suicide of the half-brother in Hidden or the woman in The Unknown Girl who knocks on the door of a young doctor's surgery late in the evening, and the doctor ignores the knocking only to find out that the woman in need was found dead in the river the next day. Such moments hold to the reality principle and fall into the realism both filmmakers practice, albeit in very different ways. This is the sort of realism Jia Zhangke's work has consistently practiced too, but here he leaves it behind for what can seem like the principle of pleasure; an approach to violence that can be deemed 'entertaining'.

We will say more about how Jia films this violence and whether it is entertaining, but first it is worth noting that Jia's relationship with realism has been vexed for some time and never more so than in a couple of films he made which were understandably assumed to be documentative: Still Life takes a close sociological look at areas where a huge dam is being built but also has a moment with a flying saucer, and another where a building launches like a spaceship, with Jia adopting computer-generated imagery. In 24 City, we start to notice that this apparent documentary account of the rapid changes in Chengdu has subjects who are actors playing characters: including Joan Chen and Zhao Tao (Jia's wife and frequent star of his films). There is a history, then, of the playful and the provocative even in films that are serious social documents. 24 City mixes real people with fictional ones as it has direct to camera interviews with various people who found the changes very hard, with the younger generation also talking about the sacrifices the older generation has made to make their lives better. The character played by Zhao Tao is one of those daughters, but someone unaware of the film's background would assume she is another person describing her family's experience and not the director's wife and muse playing a character doing so. In Still Life, the film is chiefly a documentative examination of the destructive dam being built on the Yangtze river, and combines the vivid exploration of a changing environment as towns disappear and new ones are built, with a semi-fictional tale taking place there. (The central character, Jia Zhangke's coal mining cousin, is played by Han Sanming playing Han Sanming, and Zhao Tao has a key role as well, but as a fictional character) Clearly, Jia isn't one to play by hard and fast generic rules if he isn't inclined to play fair to fictional and factual expectations.

Turning now to A Touch of Sin's violence,. we can see how it seems a type of cinema that belongs to the fantasy principle rather than the reality principle, and yet at the same time the sources for each of the three stories he tells (with an epilogue and prologue), and that all contain aggression, are based on fact. It is as if Jia wants the brutality of fictional violence to meet with the force of anecdotal reality and that will generate a contrary force. In the film's third episode, Xiaoyu (Zhao) works as a receptionist in a Hubei parlour and tells her lover that she cannot accept their affair any longer. He is a married man who will be working elsewhere and she gives him six months to make a decision. In the meantime, she finds herself put upon by the wife and a couple of heavies telling her to leave the husband alone. There we see Xiaoyu sitting at reception, a bored, far-away look on her face, filmed by Jia from outside so we see her through the window, and then when someone steps in Xiaoyu offers a warm greeting that quickly turns troubled as she sees the expression on his face as the film cuts to a medium close on Xiaoyu. The film then pans to a woman entering the frame who asks if she is Xiaoyu and slaps her hard across the face. Another cut shows her kicked out onto the street by the first man, where a second man appears and throws her against a car. As she is thrown into the air and against the vehicle, Jia moves from a medium close up to a cut from the side. It is the sort of extraneous cut that a realist mode would be unlikely to offer as it would usually stay at a remove from the violence it depicts. If the initial moment of her sitting at reception looking reflective gives the film its realist interest as it focuses on a person's contemplative state, the side-elevation shot against the car shows a director interested in the action as readily as the violence.

What turns violence into action in a film isn't easy to discern even if we may invoke Freud's differentiation to understand an aspect of this difference as sensibility to see whether the filmmaker is interested in the aggression they show as possessing a relationship with the world or with film. This isn't an either/or but perhaps a continuum; yet nevertheless so far along one end of the continuum will a Marvel film be, and so far at the other end a Dardennes work, that it can seem binary. When a filmmaker like Jia utilises an element of the hyperbolic within the context of the verisimilitude he still sees as important, it allows us to see how that hyperbole is created. It is in that side elevation shot that the viewer sees Jia adopting 'action' to show the violence, to make it cinematically vivid even if it risks creating an exaggeration that brings to mind fantasy films rather than realist works. After all, were we to witness violence on the street, in a pub, or a club, our angle on it would be singular, not multiple. What makes violence action is centrally those extra angles, and this is what Jia provides in the sequence with Xiaoyu.

Later, in the same Heubei section, a couple of gangsters come to the place where Xiaoyu works and one tries to persuade her to join him; she makes clear she is a receptionist and not a masseuse. He comes back three times to the room she is in and after the third, we see her sitting, breathing heavily, and clearly distressed. On this third visit, he has taken the other gangster, and on the fourth, the other gangster comes instead and starts to beat her up. She pulls out a knife and stabs him several times while the camera moves in a circular motion around the action. The shot may bring to mind the film's opening moments, when a hitman takes out three others and the camera circles around the killer in shots that resemble the curving camera movements vital to many a contemporary action film. Yet at the same time, Jia wants to create a work that reflects contemporary China and isn't only making a film to please an audience. Indeed, the very space he creates between the generic and the naturalistic, between violent action and social depiction, is likely to generate displeasure.

We can see this most clearly in the third section. Here we have a young man's suicide offered brutally. He jumps off a balcony and the film cuts from a close up of Xiaohui climbing onto the balcony to a long shot of the building as he jumps and lands on the ground. The suicide is a migrant worker, who has travelled from Hunan to Guangdong, hoping to find opportunities far away from his home. Jia shows Xiaohui initially taking a job in another town after accidentally responsible for a fellow factory worker's injury. Instead of working without pay as he would be expected to do, thus compensating the worker who cannot now work by working and giving the other man his wages, he gets a job at a hostess club, falling for an employee there who works to send money home for her young daughter. She is in no position to start a relationship with Xiaohui and we soon see why when part of her job is servicing her clients in elaborate fantasy scenarios. Xiaohui sees her at work and leaves, taking yet another job, but aspects of his past he cannot escape. His mother insists he must send money home but he hasn't yet been paid in his new job, and the injured employee and his friends show up and threaten to give him a beating. With a lovelorn heart, no money, thugs after him and a disappointed mother, we aren't too surprised that he cannot go on, but Jia isn't shy in showing the terrible deed itself.

This third section was based on numerous suicides during a three-year period at Foxconn. The company "...is the single largest employer in mainland China; there are 1.3 million people on its payroll. Worldwide, among corporations, only Walmart and McDonald's employ more. As many people work for Foxconn as live in Estonia." (Guardian) It is as though Jia uses the violence not chiefly as a vivid way of showing anger and tension in people's lives, though it certainly does that, but also to generate a broader brutality that the violence reflects. In other words, it releases pent up personal aggression and at the same time reveals a broader social indifference. Jiwei Xiao in a superb article on the film talks "of the indifferent bystanders", "the apathetic gaze of passersby", and wonders if the violent outbursts in A Touch of Sin can be viewed as Jia Zhangke's answer to Lu Xun's "call to arms," a call to reject one's position as an indifferent spectator and take action. In interviews, Jia compares his camera to his characters' weapons", Jiwei Xiao says, "the directness and shock of violence is intended to jolt his audience into a new recognition of Chinese reality, one that in the last decade or so has been reshaped by dizzying economic growth as well as rampant corruption, astounding greed, and an abysmal gap between rich and poor." (Film Quarterly)

After Xiaoyu's beating by the wife's heavies, Xiaoyu gets up and is obviously in pain but we see in the shot a bystander eating some nuts or sweets with no concern for Xiaoyu at all. In the first section, partly why Da Hai (Jiang Wu) goes on a killing spree is that everyone around him seems unfazed by the fortunes being made by the wealthy businessman who employs Da Hai and others, a businessman who has exploited the village for personal gain. After Da Hai makes a very deliberate spectacle of himself at the airport when the businessman and his wife come to visit and, having spoiled the full-blown welcome, Da Hai gets beaten. Instead of seeing a man who has tried to stand up to the forces of power, the other employees nickname him Mr Golf: the thug's swinging movement with a spade as he battered Da Hai resembling a golfer's swing and Da Hai's head the ball.

Many a violent film shows brutality but it doesn't distinguish between the releasing of violence and the revealing of violence. It rarely indicates that the aggression a character metes out need be part of a broader brutality that in some ways is more frightening than the representational force that a character deploys. That woman's look of unconcern after the attack on Xiaoyu contains within it a societal severity indicating that everyone is on their own. The point of many a violent film is that people are not, whether it is Batman coming to the rescue of various innocents, or a gunslinger protecting the town. The environment is often deemed to be fine once the rotten apples have been removed. That removal requires frequently extreme violence but the purpose is to eradicate evil not to show its permeation. Hence violence is released all the better so that it reveals a general decency and not a more general indecency. Jia's film uses an apparently similar approach to the violent as many a mainstream film but wants to show that the aggression doesn't go away when a violent act is committed; it illustrates instead how fundamentally brutal the culture has become.

This is no doubt why Jia insisted on making a film that would use action sequences but at the same time ground the situations in the actual misery of people's lives, making clear that aggression is no sort of solution if it stems from a broader indifference. The point of the classic western is that violence is the necessary evil for the greater good. Speaking of the western in Hollywood Westerns and American Myth, Robert B Pippin quotes Rousseau: "the savage lives in himself; sociable man always outside himself, is capable of living only in the opinions of others and, so to speak, derives the sentiment of his own existence only from their judgement." One way of looking at this is to see that in the Western and many a film reliant on its basic structure, the gunslinger is the savage who lives inside himself and the sociable man the various members of the town community who might not be able to do what the gunslinger can do but believes in the justice he metes out all the better so that society can become more civilised. The gunman is thus homoeopathic, if you like, rather than sociopathic: he is a poisonous element all the better to remove a far greater poison. A healthy social body would have no need for a gunman but the western community in The Magnificent Seven and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance have bad elements that need a lesser evil to take out a greater evil. The purpose, though, is to release a modicum of violence that needn't reveal a greater violence in the culture.

What Jia does is adopt the tropes of the action film and western, but doesn't assume the moral expectation that a small amount of violence will make things better. It becomes instead just a symptom of how bad things are. "I would say the characters in the film are angryor rather, they are in a state of anger. I wanted to use the film in a very powerful way to convey that expression. But the film itself is an attempt to subvert the notion that violence can only be responded to with violence, because I do not agree with that form of solution." (The Dissolve)

Usually, when filmmakers wish to show a resistance to violence they do so by means that counter the spectacle of it; that it is filmed in a manner that makes it perspectivally realistic at it shows it from one troubled angle, or perhaps distanciated, so that we have to question what it means in a broader cultural context than the diegesis itself. Haneke offers the former in Happy Days when someone is punched and the camera keeps its distance from a watching car, and the latter in Funny Games when the two characters rewind the very film footage we have thus far been watching. Jia instead incorporates the generic all the better to comment on the social, a risky venture perhaps when such an approach often counters the social and gives credence to the individual action. It isn't even as though Jia absorbs New Hollywood's attempt to combine effective, well-choreographed violence with both a recognition of the messiness of it and the social impact of the mayhem. Whether it is the shootout the locals get caught in the midst of in The Wild Bunch, or the hotheaded Sonny beating someone up in The Godfather, the directors (Peckinpah and Coppola respectively), offer new levels of filmmaking skill to accompany the societal incorporation. The sequences are brilliantly done but this wouldn't only be because the directors wanted the raise the ante in cinematic action but that they wanted to incorporate with the sequences a sense of how violence intrudes upon people's lives. In The Godfather, when Sonny chases after his brother-in-law and attacks him for beating his sister, we see numerous locals standing there unsure what to do and unable to get too involved as a couple of Sonny's crew are there to push people away when it looks like they might try and stop the one-sided fight. When Coppola shows us wide shots as well as closes ups, this isn't only to offer a better view of the action; it is also to register that the fight is taking place in a social milieu where people live their daily lives. In one wide shot, we see one of the kids who has been playing outside pulled away by a heavy as if he hangs around too close to the railings he may get landed with a stray punch.

Yet this isn't the approach Jia adopts either. The violence is generic but though it is filmed like entertainment the broader context doesn't coincide with it. One sees social commentary beyond the action but not quite in the action, while in the examples from The Wild Bunch and The Godfather, the directors are determined to incorporate the action in the social as they want to do action as well as any filmmakers before them but incorporate it within New Hollywood's simultaneous interest in realism as we have defined it: closer to Freud's reality principle than fantasy principle. Why, we might ask does Jia want fantasy violence within a plausible milieu; one so plausible that he bases the film on actual cases?

Perhaps it rests on Jia wishing to show 'the state of anger', as he calls it, finding an outlet without realistically assuming it will pass for a solution. When in a western, or a generic vigilante film, the hero takes out others, the purpose is to show that the consequences are both individually and socially positive: that low-lives, the corrupt and the evil have been taken care of and society can move on, from Death Wish to Kill Bill. But what happens here is that the film moves on rather than the characters: it moves on to the next situation which suggests that while taking the law into one's own hands might potentially make the characters and the audience feel better it is a feeling that cannot last it doesn't resolve the problem but proves that it is part of it. It suggests that the characters have been degraded while the point of generic revenge is that they have become heroic. Jiwei Xiao sees that Jia'"praises the "rebellious spirit" of his characters, comparing them to warriors in Chinese wuxia (martial arts) fiction." But "not unaware of their lack of heroic means and chivalry, he also calls them "canxia" (残侠, impaired knight-errant)." (Film Quarterly) However, their refusal to accept the conformism expected of them needn't be any more than a very temporary solution for their own states of anger; they can't be much use to either themselves beyond the scenario, nor to the society more broadly. One reason Jia adopts aspects of the martial arts film is perhaps to register the disjunction between how in fantasy such heroic deeds can be optimistic but in reality are usually pessimistic. Jia wishes to register the anger so that the audience can see the state China is in, but this is for a broader reverberation over direct intervention. Personally taking the law into one's own hands indicates the weakness of the law not the strength of the individual: it is a fantasy to believe otherwise. Hence Jiwei Xiao's remarks about the violence capturing the direct shock of a rapidly re-shaped economy and society.

If we have paid so much attention thus far to the film's approach to violent cinematic action, it would be remiss not to say a few things about the China Jia has spent twenty years chronicling, from early films like Pickpocket and Unknown Pleasures, to more recent work like A Touch of Sin and Ash is the Purest White. To give some idea of this shift one can look at the changing demographics in the city locations Jia uses in A Touch of Sin. In 1997, when Jia debuted with Pickpocket, the population of Chongqing was around 6.5 million according to Macrotrends, and is now close to 17m. Guangdong was 6 million and now has almost 16m people. "Chongqing is China's biggest city in terms of total population and land area, but it was only developed in 1997", says Marielle Descalsota, who notes too that, "as many as 1.5 million people were displaced, and 115 towns were submerged during the course of building the dam..." (Insider) Here is a country that has been transforming at such a rate both technologically and financially that it is no wonder the individual can feel lost in the flux. GDP was 957 billion dollars in 1997 and is almost 20 trillion now. When one of the gangsters constantly smacks Xiaoyu over and over again with hard cash it is a moment of appalling violence and vulgarity but what the film wants to convey is the man's incomprehension that money can't buy everything. The gangster says he will smother her in cash and that is exactly what has happened to China. The gangster is odious but he reflects a prevailing mood that says if money can produce megacities in a matter of years, then who is Xiaoyu to turn her nose up to a few yuan that has put up high rises transforming numerous cities' skylines.

Perhaps the purpose of Jia's film is to say that resistance must take the form of violence when money takes on the form of an absolute value, whether that violence is towards another or against oneself. In this sense, we have two murderers, an assassin and a suicide but all of the characters are involved in the problematic exchange of money. In the first section, Da Hai wants to point up the corruption involved as his village coalmine is now privatised and fortunes made by others while the miners remain poor. In the second, hired killer, San'er returns to his home city and tries to offer his estranged wife money that she turns down. As she rejects it we see out the window of this village home a skyline that seems to belong to a different century and we can assume that while her values have remained traditional, San'er's have been transformed into the monetary. He clearly isn't foisting cash upon her as the gangster beats Xiaoyu with hard currency, but in both instances men assume that the only value which matters is one that you can offer as monetary exchange.

It is here where film can seem a much subtler medium than theatre, assuming the script is similar. A play could invoke a world of wealth but it couldn't depict it. When Jia offers, in the same shot where San'er's wife refuses his money, the high rises in the distance, it gives a meaning to the exchange greater than a simple one of the wife's moral decency. It is part of a broader relationship with money that she is resisting, as she lives in a traditional house increasingly dwarfed by the ever-expanding city. Sure, theatre could now offer a back projection of high-rises while in the foreground we would have on the stage the humble home, but this approach creates a twofold reality that pushes the message much harder than in the filmic image, which we would assume conveys only one reality. In other words, while in cinema we will assume the one reality unless obvious that the filmmaker is using back projection (in the past) or CGI (more recently), in theatre that separation will be a necessary given of the medium. The theatre director cannot choose to put in the foreground a house and in the background high-rises without unequivocally calling attention to their presence. But film can make those high rises a reality within the same frame and at the same time needn't call attention to their presence.

Shortly after San'er returns to the city we see him walking along the road to the house where his wife lives. We see in the foreground, San'er strolling along a path in what amounts to countryside, and in the distance, across a lake, are the high-rises. A theatre director would be forced to make a statement and to create a visual effect in making it; a filmmaker can present a visual fact and the statement becomes implicit within it. Obviously, filmmakers can cheat and that is why we have had and have back projection and CGI. We have also noted that Jia isn't afraid of computer-generated imagery, however absurd (Still Life) and isn't ashamed to play tricks with the audience casting various actors as we have noted in what looks like a documentary in 24 City. But we will assume that what he wants to show as a contemporary chronicler of the changing China is the reality of the shift, and Jia utilises a foregrounded narrative to do so. While we can watch the film and see the obvious in ground-down lives that Jia delineates towards further despair and violence, we can also see that what the film wishes to convey above all else is a value in money that may not be the film's ethically, but happens to be undeniable in its mise-en-scene.

Here we can think again of the third section, set in Guangdong and specifically Dongguan. Xiaohui gets off the train and we see him walking along a path in what looks like countryside before he sees in front of him a series of apartment blocks that never seem to end: there must be at least 9 within the shot before the film cuts to the canteen where we see a hundred workers in blue uniforms getting lunch. Xiaohui chats with his friend who works there as they eat outside on the balcony, and the friend proposes he take a job at a nearby nightclub. The club is as regimental as the factory but selling sex instead of technology and Xiaohui doesn't last long when he develops feelings for a sex worker who can't reciprocate his feelings, and there he goes, off to work in the factory with his friend. Story-wise, we are given plenty reasons for his suicide no matter if Jia offers it a little too deterministically. The injured worker from the former factory catches up with him and threatens Xiaohui with a metal bar, his mother needs some of his paycheck and he has fallen for someone who doesn't or can't share his feelings. We also know that he cannot just walk away from this new job either: his friend says it would look bad on him if he does. All this is narratively justifiable but what makes it implicitly rather than explicitly inexorable is the way Jia films the locations in which Xiaohui finds himself. We notice the accommodation is cramped as there are eight to a room, with four sets of bunk beds and apparently no windows. Just before he takes his life we see him sitting there before getting off his bed, going out on the landing, climbing up on the ledge and jumping off. The film cuts to the reverse angle and in medium shot the camera follows his falling body. Some form of special effect will have been created to show this falling body in one shot but we are unlikely to doubt that the location he jumps from is real enough.

Equally, many, many workers do not kill themselves despite living in conditions similar to Xiaohui's but Jia will include the determinacy of the plot all the better to register the appalling environment, but it is the environment that matters, with the suggestion that while few may die, many will be miserable, evident in the numerous articles about Foxconn's dubious dealings. "A US-based rights group said there had been 'a number of rights violations' at a Foxconn factory in China which manufactures products for Amazon. Temporary agency workers were underpaid and overworked at the Hengyang Foxconn factory, according to China Labor Watch." (BBC) How better to capture the misery of the worker than offering the material conditions of their situation?

Whether it be corruption or exploitation, alienation or desperation, Jia shows the collateral damage to pursuing ever-higher GDP and provocatively proposes that the only means of dealing with it is by violently hurting oneself or others. Yet this would be less the film's 'message' than the exploration of its content. A filmmaker's purpose isn't to come up with a stance we might be inclined to agree with but delineate circumstances that are internally plausible. It doesn't matter whether we concur or not with developments that have left China moving out of absolute poverty. "In 1990 there were more than 750 million people in China living below the international poverty line - about two-thirds of the population," The BBC notes. "By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 - the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available - it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population)." Jia wonders if it is a price worth paying for moral destitution that leads to murder and suicide. Few can argue with the statistical fact that China is enormously richer than it was thirty years ago but an artist's purpose is qualitative not quantitive: a higher standard of living isn't worth much if the life of oneself or others has only monetary value and almost no other worth. The very images that Jia shows in his film of enormous urban expansion can lend themselves to a quantitative account of China's economic rise, as corporate videos with numerous drone shots, or as a qualitative work like Jia's showing those buildings making the humans in them and around them small and insignificant. "Every Chinese man or woman has two sides, the traditional and the modern, to their personality. The traditional aspect we obtain through the cultivation of traditional Chinese culture in our upbringing and education...that aspect is embodied in the spirit of jianghu. The other aspect is the result of modernity." "The jianghu subculture". Jia says, "is manifested throughout Chinese literature and cinema. For example, the classic Chinese novel Water Margin portrays how people survived the bitter period of social upheavals during the Song Dynasty. (Cineaste)

In this sense, the counterforce to alienated modernity is the presence of violent necessity; a provocative claim perhaps but one that allows at least the individual dignity against the onslaught of depradation and degregation, of corrupting forces and personal despair.

Here, the film's message and its purpose needn't be the same. The film's purpose is to show these two sides of the Chinese personality and explore how one (the culture of violent dignity) fights against the other (the industrially modernising) and leads to murder and suicide. But the film's message, such as it is, would seem to be a little different. As Jia insists, "the character, Da Hai, is angry about the corruption of his village leaders, and he turns to violence after his fight against corruption (through China's legal system) fails. It is the wrong way to seek justice but social problems like corruption is the main cause of the violence in the first story." (Asian Fortune News) He would seem to speak of a space between the purpose and the meaning. A revenge film like Death Wish doesn't seek that gap and when Vincent Canby called it "a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers" (New York Times), he makes clear that the film is a cinematic variation of the famous comment that "for every problem there is a solution that is simple, neatand wrong." Jia's film is a work that apparently simplifies the problem too but indicates at the same time solutions that are simple and neat aren't right just symptomatically revealing of China's hyper-modernisation.


© Tony McKibbin