In a week during which much of the country is relinquishing collective control to the unpredictable currents of nationalism and patriotism, one can’t help but wonder why those sentiments aren’t channeled more cleverly into national or, for that matter, international cinema. They are, more often than not, played straight at the movies as noble motivations for unambiguously heroic actions. But the other kind of patriotism, the kind that’s rooted in inquiry, subversion and constructive criticism with an eye towards cultural betterment? That’s a little less heavily represented on our screens, making it doubly refreshing when a film like Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin comes along to demonstrate that patriotism in art can take on forms other than blind jingoism. Sometimes loving your country means isolating and articulating the things you hate about it.
A Touch of Sin, which won Best Screenplay at Cannes 2013 and a spot on my list of 2014’s best films (comparable honors, I know), is Jia’s uncompromising way of doing just that. Known for his slow and naturalistic documentary-style films, he embarks on a different path with this one, adopting a genre-inflected and pointedly bloody approach that’s far removed from his usual downbeat social realism. The goal, however, is the same as it always is for him: the wielding of weaponized allegory, metaphor and artistry to strip away the Chinese government’s version of the status quo and replace it with the discomfiting truth. If that isn’t real national pride, I don’t know what is. The film consists of four interconnected stories (all, reportedly, based on real headlines) that, as a whole, concern themselves with the corruption, totalitarian tendencies and cultural rot that lurks behind China’s fairy story of economic miracle-making, a narrative hook bound to resonate with any self-aware Indian cinemagoer. Each story concerns a working-class individual caving under the pressure of relentless exploitation, humiliation and high-handedness imposed by the country’s newly minted wealthy. In most cases, their only avenue of protest in an environment of institutional indifference (or outright hostility) is brutal violence. A migrant worker, a disenfranchised miner, a receptionist at a massage parlour — as it turns out, the main thing these people have in common is the comprehensive lack of options that leads them to believe (perhaps rightly) that their only recourse is to lash out.
Also present and accounted for are other conventions frequently used by Hitchcock in particular and noir mysteries in general.But to continually equate Petzold’s film with its spiritual predecessors is to do it a disservice. It has its own distinctive delights.
Said violence is, as you might expect from an arthouse director given to lyricism, loaded with emotional weight. Jia doesn’t dance around the carnage in this picture. It’s as starkly vicious as anything out of a gangster movie and, for a carefully considered piece of political art, this movie features a couple of riveting and beautifully mounted action scenes. The violence, however, is not cathartic. It comes off as hollow to both perpetrator and audience, sputtering microcosmic revolutions that are so much sound and fury adding up to precisely nothing. The political and economic machinery of the state grinds on, the manufactured projection of national harmony and strength stays intact and the business of, well, business remains top priority above all moral and ethical considerations. This is not to say that the film is calculatedly cynical. Pessimistic certainly and perhaps even a tad hopeless but never entirely out of touch with the humanity of its characters and, consequently, their capacity for improving their circumstances. If they fail, they do so because of the limits imposed on them by the state and by decades of internalizing institutional dogma and oppression.
Even where hope is flagging, however, determination isn’t. Jia clearly believes in his country’s potential and the thwarting of that potential by venal plutocrats has left him with an abiding sense of rage. He has not yet given way to full-on resignation. As a result, A Touch of Sin plays like a howled out call to revolution, one that dismisses the futility of visceral (read: violent) individual reaction but argues instead for collective and considered reaction to the impositions of the state. It slices surgically through the bluster and teases out the cancerous bits of the national body, from corrupt bureaucracy to badly regulated industry to unchecked powermongering. It’s basically Dostoyevsky meets Tarantino in a fierce and principled display of how patriotism should ideally express itself, starting with the acknowledgment that, yes, something is wrong.