The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities recently hosted their annual Big Ideas@TU, choosing this year to screen the Chinese film “A Touch of Sin,” followed by a panel consisting of several TU professors, each from different departments: Thomas Buoye, history department; Jeff Van Hanken, film studies; Mike Troilo, international business; and Helen Huiwen Zhang, Chinese and comparative literature.
“A Touch of Sin” is an episodic tale, following four strangers linked by chance encounters, mutual acquaintances and acts of violence. The first of our protagonists, Dahai, is a blue collar worker fed up with the corruption of his village chief and corporate superiors. His efforts to report their misdoings lead him down a path of self-alienation, eventually climaxing in western-style vengeance. The second is an apathetic young man whose first appearance sees the demise of three young bandits, the third a woman whose position as a secretary in a massage parlor makes her the target of fatally lecherous men, and the final a young man whose romance with a brothel worker disillusions his notion of the pleasure trade.
All four characters reflect a sense of disenfranchisement concerning China’s supposed prosperity, and an economic flourishing the international community is all too quick to hail as a statistical miracle. The director was inspired to make the film after seeing a recurrence of random crimes in his and other towns. While he never uses the term exactly, his film portrays this as the product of anomie, in which an individual or group finds themselves at a disconnect from their greater society’s ethical or social standards.
Before the film began, each professor posed a different question to the audience, in an effort to make us more attentive to particular details and themes. Professor Troilo asked us to focus on the aspect of globalization’s effect in China, and the resulting homogenization of culture that has occurred in the country. Alienation seems to be the byproduct of globalization, as is a stark cost of human dignity. Some characters are compensated for their loss of life and innocence. Others, as Professor Troilo put it, are made “cogs in a vast product train.”
Professor Buoye drew our attention to the generational gap apparent throughout the film, and the motif of broken bridges that visually reflected this. Where Dahai is a middle-aged man with a sense of closeness and camaraderie for his fellow workers, his younger counterpart is a cold-hearted killer with a homicidal nature more calculated than passionate. Professor Van Hanken, specializing in film studies, noted how the film utilizes non traditional cinematography. The movie is largely lacking in the establishing shots common in Western cinema, instead allowing the viewer to experience the world through the perspective of the protagonists. Professor Buoye claimed that the film used long shots so that the viewer could choose where they looked on the screen. This led to the first disagreement between the panelists, as Dr. Zhang argued that the long shots were used to set up tension so that when violence did occur, it could be articulated in climactic, abrupt shots.
Professor Zhang had noted the importance of animals throughout the film, and what they articulate regarding the characters. For Dahai, there is the tiger, who acts as both a gesture of self-staging, a reference to “All Men Are Robbers,” where the character of Panther Hat is tiger and tiger-slayer all in one. For the killer in episode 2, the bull seemed his primary symbol, but Dr. Zhang chose instead to emphasize the role a goose played in the film. As the man becomes accepting of his violent nature, a previously seen goose is executed by the family which owns it. For the massage secretary, there is the snake. The snake represents many but primarily reflects the secretary’s fatal capacity to lash out against attackers. In the final part, the animal is spoken, not seen, as the young man refers to his online handle being “Little Bird.” To elaborate further would spoil the film’s conclusion.
Overall, “A Touch of Sin” is greater than the sum of its parts. For its basis in real cases of violence and its strong social critique, it manages to overcome its sometimes lackluster script, which occasionally resorts to happenstance and two-dimensional antagonists. Director Jia Zhangke voiced that his intent in making the film was to “understand and then approach” social issues otherwise considered taboo. This artistic approach, Dr. Zhang said, “cannot be equated to a legal or moral one.” Anyone with an interest in foreign films or a different perspective on China’s so-called prosperity would do well to see this film, despite its storytelling shortcomings.