Reach Out of the Darkness, by Scott Nye
Even without learning that Jia Zhangke’s latest feature, A Touch of Sin, found its narrative roots in real-world acts of explosive violence, a fact of which I was entirely unaware until after I saw the film, it leaves a distinctly uncomfortable impression of reality, as though these horrific acts are only the natural outcome of an oppressed people, rather than an abnormality. In each of the four stories he traces, violence anticipates violence, as people in vulnerable positions in society are pushed to the brink until they just can’t take it anymore. Zhangke merges genre thrills with uncomfortable brutality, making us question the artistic legitimacy of depicting either one, and emerging with a potently scarring piece of rebel art.
His first story is perhaps the most straightforward, and sets the template for those to come – Dahai (Jiang Wu), a mineworker, fed up with the complete lack of response he gets in trying to air his grievances with various authority figures, even peers, grabs a shotgun and starts removing those in power one by one. The tension of these encounters is undercut by Wu’s great charisma, as well as his unflinching disinterest in his own fate, leaving us to deal only with its ramifications. It’s a clear case of a man taking justice into his own hands, but his attitude towards it, at once selfless and megalomaniacal, is one of someone not on a mission to accomplish a greater good, but just leave his mark on the world. The systems in place that keep people like him oppressed are not likely to be overthrown by the removal of even several ranking members, and perhaps he knows that – he just wants to let them know that he was there, and assure himself that he had some meaning.
Or perhaps it was just a burst of righteous fury? Zhangke isn’t terribly interested in psychoanalyzing his subjects, directing them towards emotion built only in their present circumstances, when there is any emotion at all. His second subject is driven much more by personal necessity, yet his violent act is much more random. The third is quite literally pushed into a place where she will overtaken if she does not strike back, but the toll her actions take on her soul are ghastly, and Zhangke sits in the aftermath of her decision for much longer than any of the others. But then, unlike the others, her strike was not premeditated, but the result of several coincidences and misunderstandings that stretch back to a simple snafu with transportation security.
The film’s fourth story, well…best to not dive too far into that. It begins with a moment of accidental violence, and spirals from there. Where the rest of the stories contain some amount of pulpy thrills, Zhangke comes back, in the end, to what we’ve really been watching all along – a senseless tragedy. Each story has enough loose connections that one can place them into a whole interconnected context if they so choose, but Zhangke doesn’t force the issue in the manner of a Crash or Babel, preferring instead to highlight the thematic and dramatic ways each feeds into the other. The portrait it paints of modern China, and much of the modern world by extension, is not a pretty one, but where nihilism is often an easy resort for the cynical, Zhangke’s is considered, thoughtful, and inconclusive. He doesn’t outright damn the world, but seems to see very little hope for it.