Tian zhu ding/A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)

Blogpost, Chinese cinema, Film reviews

It has been a couple of months since I saw A Touch of Sin at a cinema in Paris (La Clef on rue Daubenton), and so my memory of the film is not necessarily fully accurate.

However, I wanted to get down some thoughts on the film ahead of the fantastic-looking Chinese Visual Festival that runs from 8-18 May in London, and which features a visit from director Jia Zhangke to discuss both his early short films and A Touch of Sin.

For, my plan is not to send out spoilers ahead of the film’s screening. Rather, it is to encourage people to attend the screening(s) – since A Touch of Sin is a remarkable film by an important director. And I wish to delineate the film’s importance, as well, perhaps, as its contradictions, in this post.

(I cannot, alas, make the screening – in fact I can only make one film during the whole Festival. Should any readers care to know, I shall be away to give a talk at the Cinemateket in Stockholm, Sweden, for the first part and on holiday/at a wedding in Spain, for the second part of the festival. Even though I have these treats in store, I am still envious of anyone who gets to hear Jia in conversation.)


A Touch of Sin tells four stories, each based on true events, about contemporary China. It opens with a man on a motorbike, Zhousan (Baoqiang Wang), who is held up by a gang of young highwaymen. He kills them with a gun and then rides off – past Dahai (Jiang Wu), who sits astride his own bike next to an overturned tomato truck (it could be red apples).

We then stay with Dahai as he tries to arouse anger in his village against corrupt businessmen, especially an old friend who has become very rich (owning a private jet) while others continue to be poor. So angry does he become that he decides to take getting revenge into his own, soon-to-be-bloody hands…

The film then returns to Zhousan, who has come home for New Year to see his wife and child. He claims to be doing successful work during his migrations, but in fact leads a life of crime (as his early murder of the highwaymen makes clear – more murders follow).

A third section of the film sees a pretty receptionist at a sauna, Xiaoyu (Jia regular Zhao Tao), who is beaten up by the wife and friends of her lover (Jiayi Zhang), before being abused by two rich businessmen (one of whom is also played by Jia regular Hongwei Wang) who mistake her for a prostitute. This insult leads Xiaoyu to exact her revenge on the businessmen.

And, finally, a young factory worker named Xiaohui (Lanshan Luo) quits a job in a clothing factory after an accident sees him needing to pay compensation to one of his co-workers. He joins a friend at a factory in a different town, is found and beaten up by his former colleague who suffered the accident, and commits suicide.

The description of the film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival is as follows: ‘Four people, four different provinces. A reflection on contemporary China: that of an economic giant slowly being eroded by violence.’

While this description is in some senses accurate, I wonder that it is also a bit misleading. It suggests that violence is eroding China as an economic giant, when in fact the film is really about how in becoming an economic giant, China is becoming an increasingly violent place.

And although the violence that we see in this film is both startling and based on a set of true stories, the film also functions at an allegorical level: the major violence perpetrated in this film is by those Chinese citizens who have embraced the get-rich-quick ethos of what we in the West might term neo-liberal capitalism, and who, in adopting this ethos, concomitantly adopt an ethos whereby the rest of the world can go hang. Whereby violence, in the form of exploitation, is enacted on the rest of the world. Humans are deprived of their very humanity and instead are seen as commodities, as economic opportunities, and objects to be disposed of as one sees fit.

A Touch of Sin is vastly more violent than any of Jia’s films to date, even if those other films also chart the disenfranchisement of various members of Chinese society – right from first feature Xiao wu/Pick Pocket (Hong Kong/China, 1997) through to Er shi si cheng ji/24 City (China/Hong Kong/Japan, 2008), Jia’s last fiction feature.

I find this violence interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have written an essay – to be published in a book provisionally entitled Marxism and Film Activism, edited by Ewa Mazierska and Lars Kristensen – on the films Tropa de Elite/Elite Squad (José Padilha, Brazil, 2007) and Un homme qui crie/A Screaming Man (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, France/Belgium/Chad, 2010).

In that essay, I argue that we are entering an era of renewed activism, one that in particular features violence as a response to the injustices of the world – and one in which standing by and observing is no longer justified.

For those who care to note the technical aspect of my essay, I make this argument using the language of Gilles Deleuze and his writings on cinema.

Deleuze argued that his concept of ‘time-image’ cinema featured ‘seers’ – characters who can only watch in the face of the world, and who do not decide to be agential heroes that do violence to the world, something we might characterise as the typical mythos of the American western.

I argue that while the ‘time-image’ might have been revolutionary in its time, perhaps a new ‘movement-image’ cinema of action is being adopted now as a means of resistance against the inequities of global, neo-liberal capitalism – as per the (admittedly problematic) violence of Elite Squad, and as per the critique of passivity in A Screaming Man.

I then use Marx to argue that we should not put time-image and movement-image cinema into a hierarchy; the time-image is often interpreted, in the modern context, as superior to the movement-image, which, in broad terms, we can equate as being the superiority – aesthetically if not commercially – of art house cinema to mainstream cinema (cinema that uses the fast-paced aesthetics of what David Bordwell would term ‘intensified continuity editing’).

To return to A Touch of Sin, I see the film’s violence as being Jia’s own expression of how we have perhaps gone through the time of/for passivity as a response to the intensified spread of neo-liberal capital, perhaps especially in mainland China. So maddening is the onslaught that accompanies it that we are looking at what the Invisible Committee would term a Coming Insurrection; an outbreak of violence so severe that it might bring neoliberal capital to its knees.

Perhaps it is worth noting that the move on Jia’s part is premeditated and deliberate. The film’s title is of course a reference to King Hu’s classic martial arts film, A Touch of Zen (Taiwan, 1971), which tells the story of an artist caught up in a struggle against Imperial conspiracy and domination. That film uses martial arts as a means of resistance against hegemony, with the martial being/becoming an art – with art always being a tool for resistance against domination (art is always political, and art for art’s sake is a bourgeois concept intended to nullify the political power of art). Perhaps Jia considers violence in a similar, contemporary fashion here.

But Jia’s film involves not just a reference to King Hu. Among its rich forebears must surely be included not the western, but the spaghetti western, especially the works of Sergio Leone, and/or a film like Django (Sergio Corbucci, Italy/Spain, 1966). As David Martin-Jones has cogently argued, these films also use violence as a means to express the disempowerment of Europe’s impoverished south, and as a means to try to empower themselves, but not by positing a wholly new, artistic cinema (as happened further north in Europe, for example), but by taking the tropes of a very Western genre, the western, and reworking them for their own ends (perhaps we can argue that the giallo does something similar with horror).

In this way, A Touch of Sin also is part of a tradition that takes tropes of the western in order to give expression to dissatisfaction with the ongoing drive towards global capitalist domination, a domination that historically was itself espoused in the Indian-destroying, nature-taming genre of the western itself.

(I argue in this book that Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2012) might also be trying to do something similar – as might the overwhelming emphasis on revenge in contemporary cinema, with the recent Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, Ireland/UK, 2014), and in some senses, ahem, my own film, Common Ground (William Brown, UK, 2012), being (Christian-influenced?) considerations of how allowing that vengeful violence, of how standing up saying ‘perhaps it is right that you should attack me’ might in turn be a/the bourgeois-but-understanding response.)

The question then becomes, though: does Jia (do all of these films) express a solution to the problem, or only a means of perpetuating it? If (the spectacle of) violence is at the very soul of capitalism, then to give in to violence – even if in ‘only’ a film, albeit one based on a true story – might simply perpetuate the status quo rather than in fact challenging it…

I quote:

as Antonio Negri puts it, “antagonism is the motor of development of the system, the foundation of a continuous resurgence of antagonism each time that the project, the history of capital, progresses,” then perhaps it is only in an inventory of the failed efforts and strategies of human liberation that the forces of oppression can be identified and fought effectively.

This is from Jonathan Beller, quoting, as is clear, Antonio Negri.

Perhaps, then, the antagonism of A Touch of Sin only adds to the progress of capital. Vicious, thought-provoking and heartfelt as A Touch of Sin is, one wonders if Jia has succumbed to a (too-human?) desire for violence in order to endeavour properly to get out of the paradoxes and contradictions of capital – only to fail because antagonism is what capital wants. Indeed, it is not as if the cinema has not commodified violence since soon after its inception – as an early film like The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, USA, 1903) makes clear.

Confessions from the LFF: Ha-shoter/Policeman (Nadav Lapid, Israel, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Israeli Cinema

Without wishing to over-generalise, the French philosopher of cinema, Gilles Deleuze argues that thought begins when action ends. Or, more specifically, when we are no longer capable of action.

He says this because actions typically are defined as being things that we do automatically. We might decide to do something, even in a split second. But the action itself is automatic. What happens between actions is thought; and the more intense one’s thoughts are, perhaps the less action one will carry out.

In Tropa de Elite/Elite Squad (José Padilha, Brazil/Netherlands/USA/Argentina, 2007), Deleuze’s name is specifically crossed out on a blackboard at the beginning of a scene in which one of the young cops who will become a key part of the Elite Squad, Matias (André Ramiro), chooses which contemporary theorist/philosopher he and his classmates will do projects on.

The moment is perhaps coincidental, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek visual gag – probably missed by most viewers – made at the expense of film theorists. Namely, those who sit around thinking about film rather than actually going out there and making films.

Nonetheless, if Padilha and his collaborators want to rub one in the eye of film theorists and others whose ‘sitting around thinking’ is perceived as useless to society, this raises some interesting questions.

For, in not being a theorist but in going out there and making a film instead, Padilha becomes a man of action. And this act of filmmaking is suitable for a film that, seemingly, endorses, or at the very least explores, the call for, precisely, action in response to the critical condition of society.

That is, Trope de Elite – as well as its sequel Trope de Elite 2 – O Enemigo Agora É Outro/Elite Squad 2 (José Padilha, Brazil, 2010) – seems to support the efforts of Capitão Nascimento (Wagner Moura) not to sit back and think but to take action. And by ‘taking action,’ I mean enact a zero tolerance policy on drugs and gang violence in the favelas (and elsewhere) of Rio de Janeiro.

There is also a moment at the end of Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s Un homme qui crie/A Screaming Man (France/Belgium/Chad, 2010) in which a title card appears saying words to the effect that he who sits around refusing to act is doomed, both physically and spiritually. That is, the film, which features a father, Champion (Youssouf Djaoro), who does nothing while Chad and his family fall apart, suggests that ethically, perhaps even morally, the time to act is nigh – and that, again, sitting around thinking has done nothing to stem the tide of exploitation (Champion looks after a swimming pool in a Western-style hotel) and inequality that continues to sweep our planet.

While Tropa de Elite verges on the reactionary in its condemnation of Rio gangs and its support for the misunderstood nature of the militaristic squad that it depicts (that is, the film seemingly endorses state violence towards its transgressive citizens), Un homme qui crie seems to call for the awakening of a more revolutionary spirit that will not take state-authorised exploitation sitting, or lying, down.

However, while Tropa de Elite (and its sequel) and Un homme qui crie seem to espouse slightly different political outlooks, both seem to present a call to arms.

And, as we have seen from global south to global north, from student movements in Chile and the UK to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, both film(maker)s – from Brazil and Chad – seem to have their finger on the global pulse. That is, now people are starting to act – be they oppositional or reactionary forces endeavouring through violence to put down whatever insurrections they encounter.

Although the world is perhaps calling out for a (quite general) definition of what precisely constitutes violence in order to get a better legal handle on what is going on, if nothing else, my point here is slightly different.

My point is that I have not decided how to act yet – and I may never do. I am still thinking about all of this – and, indeed, finding it ever harder to think about the ‘state of the world’ precisely because it is so complex (and brought to me by global media networks). I may know where my allegiances lie in principle, but I am still a coward, scared that I will do ‘the wrong’ thing (because I am still waylaid by notions of right and wrong, even though I think beyond good and evil).

On 24 June 1963, John F Kennedy misattributed his words to Dante when he said in Bonn that ‘the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who retain their neutrality in times of moral crisis’ (Dante said in canto 3 of the Inferno that those who were neither for nor against God were in a special region near the mouth of hell; Kennedy was on a roll at the time, though, since two days later he told West Berliners that he was a donut).

But while I fear that there is some truth in Kennedy’s words, and that – impossibly – we will perhaps endure the return of some absolute standard of good and/or evil against which the decision not to fight will make us more lousy than those who fight for it, I also feel that I want to remain partisan regarding my neutrality. Even when I act, my actions are my own; my neutrality is my action, whatever hatred it might elicit from others (should it last forever; who knows when I shall reach my crisis point and emerge, grenade in hand, to man the barricades).

This scares me; I suffer anxiety that I am not ‘occupying’ – and on the whole can only see reasons not to join either side.

Anyway, the reason why I am ‘confessing’ the above is because in some respects Policeman at the London Film Festival this year helped me to relax some of these issues.

On the surface, the film might fit into the ‘reactionary’ camp of Tropa de Elite in that the film examines with some sympathy (by which I mean, ironically enough, neutrality) the life of Yaron (Yiftach Klein), himself an über-macho member of an Israeli ‘elite squad’ that deals with Palestinian terrorists.

Yaron struts around with his shades on, consistently doing push ups, pull ups and finding any excuse to exert his alpha status, even over his fellow squad members, whom he high fives and hugs in a fashion that, to avoid the ‘on steroids’ cliché of crap film journalism, is like Top Gun (Tony Scott, USA, 1986) injected with the super-juice that they pump into the much-more-interesting-when-scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, USA, 2011).

Yaron is a seemingly loving husband, but he is also under investigation for killing a Palestinian child and old man during a raid (something that the team decides to blame on a guy in their squad who has a brain tumor and who is likely therefore to die, or arouse sympathy), and he may possibly fool around with, and most certainly flirts with, a 15-year old waitress in a bar.

Yaron eventually comes up against a group of young terrorists – not from Palestine, however, but from Israel. These terrorists, whom director Lapid said at the Film Festival were inspired by his reading about the Baader Meinhof group, believe that the rich are too rich and that the poor are too poor – and that ‘it’s time for the poor to get rich and for the rich to get dying.’

As a result, they take hostage two billionaires, together with the wife and daughter of one of them. In what is perhaps the most naïve and inept piece of terrorism ever seen on film (though surely not in real life), the group of upper middle class Israeli revolutionaries take their hostages to the basement of the hotel where the kidnapping took place. There, they allow men purporting to be ‘press photographers’ into the room, even though they never asked for these men to come (of course, they are police photographers after intel). And – behold/spoilers – the anti-terrorist squad arrives and does its job.

In some senses, the utter naïveté of the ‘terrorists’ is astounding, heartbreaking and disturbing. In other senses, so is their conviction – their conviction that calling to the elite police squad outside that they too are being exploited will lead them to put down their weapons and demand for social justice themselves.

But their folly is not what consoles me in my neutrality. Rather, it is Yaron who – sort of – consoles me. Yaron shows nerves during this mission in a way that presumably is very uncharacteristic of him. Nonetheless, he enters into the room (another idiotic aspect of holding hostages in a basement: the counter-terrorist unit will turn out the lights and use night vision goggles, making you as terrorist utterly defenceless), and carries out his mission.

In doing so, he kills Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a young and in some respects ‘lost’ poor little rich girl, who gives Jane Fonda a run for her money in believing with conviction in her righteous quest to adjust the fact that Israel is dominated by hoarding rich while the poor work for less than minimum wage (Palestine is deliberately not even broached as a topic).

Looking down at her body, we see that Yaron is, perhaps, beginning to ‘crack’ – that his transition from action man to thinker is beginning to take place.

Don’t get me wrong: the price for Yaron’s ‘conversion’ is terrible and I am not saying that the lives of others is a worthy price for one person’s decision – after years of action – to pause for thought. However, while it seems as though the world is demanding an escalating level of action, Policeman in its own way seems to be suggesting a pause for thought.

And not just by Yaron, but perhaps also by the kids who wind up dead for their stupidity. Some more forethought, some more thought, on both sides, might possibly have avoided the bloodshed.

If Tropa de Elite seems to endorse the use of force to take out insurrectional elements of society, and if Un homme qui crie suggests that you are foolish not to take up arms in times of trouble, then Policeman perhaps suggests that trouble might be avoided if we all thought a bit more. If we looked and saw – saw deeply – rather than acted based upon superficial evidence.