The echo of Neighboring Sounds, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Brazilian debut feature, can be found in the violent outbursts of Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin. With race-to-the-bottom politics the norm throughout the globe, the overarching exploitation of the working class becomes increasingly clear. But whereas Filho’s film dealt with a middle-class Brazil attempting to hold on to its ancestry and sense of history, the China found in Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is one that’s already lost - essentially Americanized and stripped of its identity with only the faintest remnants keeping it together.
A Touch of Sin is comprised of four separate narratives spanning various Chinese provinces. While there’s some overlap in characters from time to time, each story adheres to a singular voice. The four plots - a miner’s violent retort to political graft, a migrant worker’s boredom with domesticity, a spa clerk’s failed relationship with a married man, and a twenty-something year old’s factious dependence on dead-end jobs - are generally united in their source of contention: authority. It’s not to say that A Touch of Sin is a film about rebellion without just cause. Cause stems from the mental and physical abuse that these working class characters take through their day-to-day drudgery. Take Dahai (Jiang Wu), the subject of the first plot. Brandishing his military coat, Dahai is man of obedience but one who requires his inquiries to be answered. When he questions whether the promised profit sharing will be paid out, he’s reprimanded with a beating to the head. When the bureaucracy perpetually denies its people, the people will revolt. The violence in A Touch of Sin is an example of internalized combustion; a release of pent-up rage from years of mental and physical strain.
The third narrative offers considerable weight to Zhangke’s product of globalized aggression. A spa receptionist (Zhao Tao) needs to maintain a customary demeanor while dealing with her own life, which includes harassment from her lover’s wife. A scene that summarizes much of A Touch of Sin itself shows a man slapping a wad of cash across the receptionist’s face, attempting to buy her off as a hooker. The thrashing lasts for an uncomfortable period of time before she reaches into her purse with a knife, effectively neutralizing the threat. It’s a visualization of the perpetual agony associated with monotonous labor where just enough money is offered to survive. Eventually, the repetitive cycle and aggressive dismissals are enough to elicit a violent outburst.
Jia Zhangke’s work has eluded me up to this point, but he shows a level of master craft as both a writer and director. While I found some lingering issues with the connectivity of the four portraits (the second narrative arc in particular didn’t work for me as a singular effort nor as a piece to the tapestry), I found some of the imagery to hone in a little too pointedly on the thematic impression of the film. But the further away I step from A Touch of Sin, the more broadly effective I find it. It’s a picture about the globalization of the world. It only makes sense that it feels universal.