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.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, USA, 2013)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I was fortunate enough early this week (18-20 November 2013) to give a few talks in Sweden, at the University of Gothenburg and at the University of Skovde. At both institutions, I spoke about digital cinema, while also delivering a third paper on neuroscience and film at Skovde.

What was in particular of interest, however, was the way in which the trip allowed me to discuss with my esteemed colleague, Lars Kristensen, about his ongoing work on bicycles in cinema. Furthermore, since Skovde, where Lars works, has a strong emphasis on the study of video games, it also allowed us to discuss gaming.

In a relaxed conversation, we ended up hypothesising something along these lines: cinema has a dual tendency – for realism and for fantasy, a dual tendency also at work in video games, but which manifests itself in a different way.

Put succinctly, when cinema deals with bicycles, it often presents to us a strong notion of the physicality – of the embodied nature – of bike riding, and also of what goes into owning and maintaining a bike.

We need look no further than Vittorio de Sica’s classic Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Italy, 1948) to see this realist tendency at work in terms of how the bike is an important component in physical existence: the film tells the story of a man whose very livelihood depends on the bicycle, even if we do not see him ride it very much.

To take a less well known example, we also see in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Bibycleran/The Cyclist (Iran, 1987) the way in which the physical act of riding a bike is exhausting – a physical experience that is understood best through one’s body.

This we can compare with a film like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1982), in which we are given a fantasy version of the biking scenario: Elliott (Henry Thomas) eventually flies on his bike, in effect no longer needing physically to ride the thing, because E.T. just allows him to take off.

This latter example, E.T., is cinema as fantasy: cinema allows us at times to transcend the limits of gravity and to take off.

Now, we tend to think of computer games as not being particularly realistic, and therefore perhaps more fantastic. This is most clear in terms of the relationship of the images that we see in video games to reality: unlike analogue photographs, which have an indexical link to reality owing to the much theorised concept that photographic and cinematographic images bear the direct imprint of the light that was before the camera at the time of the image’s taking, digital images have no such link. And as a result, digital images are freed from the shackles of the real world and can depict fantastic places and deeds that defy the physical limitations of that real world.

The same applies to digital images in cinema as applies to digital images in games: digital cinema – in terms of special effects cinema – sees fantastic figures performing fantastic feats, many of which defy gravity. Flying cameras, flying characters – all unhooked from reality and existing in a fantasy realm.

While cinema commonly offers us myths of flying – of defying gravity – gaming, however, seems paradoxically to be defined precisely by gravity, at least a lot of the time. Sports simulations may involve getting the game’s avatars to perform bitchen and radical moves, including on bikes. But they also involve falling back to Earth. Mario and Sonic can jump great heights, but they always land. Lara Croft sometimes cannot jump high enough. And Tetris is defined almost uniquely by the inevitable weight of gravity – including, as the game progresses, the notion that the objects fall faster and faster the further one gets.

(To go way back through the canon of video games, I always felt horrified when Jet Set Willy would on occasion fall down from one room in his mansion and through into another, where Willy would continue to fall to his death – sometimes seven times in a row (Willy’s number of lives), since Willy would always start a new life in the exact location where he entered the last room before his death. It was agonising to watch Willy fall seven times in a row, even worse when he did this after I’d loaded the cheat version and caused Willy to have innumerable lives – i.e. he would fall and die in a loop forever.)

This discussion provides an excellent context through which to offer up a brief consideration of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Gravity, which I saw this evening (21 November 2013) at the BFI IMAX in London in 3D.

I shan’t do much more than allude to the way in which Gravity has something like a game structure: it is about solving problems in short order, getting from space shuttle to space station, to another space station and then – spoiler (of a sort) – to Earth (though the clue is in the title of the film, so this should not constitute too ‘bad’ a spoiler – ‘worse’ are to follow).

However, being a film that is in enormous part the result of digital animation, Gravity does also play with the dual tensions within cinema – as explained via the bicycle analogy – towards fantasy and towards realism.

For, while digital cinema can show us incredible feats performed by impossible specimens, Gravity seems instead to want to use its digital effects to convey something a lot more ‘realistic’.

This is not simply a case of the perceptually realistic images that we see of Earth and of the Heavens from orbit – excellent though these are, and important though they also are to my argument about the film.

Nor is it that Gravity is without fantasy/fantastic elements, as I shall discuss presently.

But rather, I shall propose that Gravity demonstrates the way in which something so false as a digital image can in fact function towards realistic ends. Or rather, it can function towards helping us to believe in reality.

To paraphrase Gilles Deleuze, the film offers a parable about how the power of the false (the digital image) can reaffirm our belief in the real (the world that we inhabit) – and that, arguably, this is key to the film’s power over audiences (even though some people I know have responded to the film in a way that we might in the vernacular term ‘meh’ – i.e. not particularly impressed).

(I should qualify this by saying – based upon off-blog discussions about the earliest version of this posting, that I am not particularly in love with Gravity if you want my value-judgement of the film. I found the IMAX 3D in particular annoying because parts of the images, typically Sandra Bullock’s face, blur if you do not look at them directly, and Cuarón did not push the deep focus far enough – for me, variable focus and 3D are antithetical, since my eyes want to search the depth of the image, and instead I am confronted with more blur. Beyond which, I am not particularly interested in whether a film is good or bad; these are relative and relatively pointless terms. I am more interested in what a film is trying to do, and I might – as per Gravity – cut the film some slack when it is trying to do something interesting, even if it does not achieve its aims for every audience member – hence the ‘meh’ that many people express at the film.)

Now, Gravity tells the story of how a physicist, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), tries to get back to Earth after her first space flight to work on a telescope goes horribly wrong as a result of a débris shower brought on by destroyed satellites.

She struggles with her colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) to get from her space shuttle to a first and then a second space station, all the while with limited resources – before trying to get back to Earth.

So, here is a key fantasy element: there is in particular a sequence in which Kowalski reappears to Stone late on in the film. She is about to give up on her attempts to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, but he enters the Russian pod in which she finds herself and gets her to continue in her endeavours to escape/to survive.

Significantly, the film does not cut as we transition from what appears to be a realistic moment (Stone alone in the pod), into this fantasy apparition from Kowalski, and then back again to her being alone in the pod.

In other words, the fantastic seems to be on a continuum with the real, such that we cannot tell them apart. Indeed, one might infer from this that nothing else that we see is real, but instead all a fantasy – and that Stone is in fact dreaming the whole situation.

This is a plausible take on the film, but one that would only to me signal something that all viewers already know: that the film as a whole is of course a fantasy – this is a fiction film starring well known stars whom we know not to be astronauts in real life – but that this fantasy might nonetheless have an effect in the real world, that this fantasy might allow its viewers to believe (once again?) in the real world.

Perhaps the casting of those self-same stars is important here. We have Clooney, the star of Steven Soderbergh’s slightly maligned but interesting remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris/Solaris (USSR, 1972; USA, 2002). In that film, space is used as a vehicle for fantastic projection: faced with the void of space, the fact that our memories and our fantasies structure and are an inseparable part of our perception of reality becomes most tangible. In effect, we realise that humans are incapable of facing the void, of facing the reality of the enormous scale of the universe, of facing our insignificance and our death, and that we use fantasy (we use the desire to see reality as a film?) to cope with the emptiness that otherwise surrounds and perhaps is us.

Bullock, too, is the veteran of many a ‘fine’ action film – Speed (Jan de Bont, USA, 1994) is the one that most particularly comes to mind – though she also does increasingly a line in credible, realistic portrayals of ‘real’ people, as The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, USA, 2009) and 28 Days (Betty Thomas, USA, 2000) might suggest. That is, she seems to come with – and to embody – the dual concerns of gravity.

And then, perhaps importantly, we have the voice of Ed Harris as Mission Control – he being associated with ‘real life’ space travel films Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, USA, 1995) and The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, USA, 1983). In other words, Harris ‘grounds’ the film in supposedly true/authentic cinematic depictions of space/space travel, thereby reinforcing Gravity‘s credentials as a film that relates to the real world.

I mentioned earlier the shots of Earth and the Heavens from space. These are digital compositions and not ‘real’. However, in particular during the film’s opening 10 minutes, in which we enjoy a single, unbroken shot of space and then of the astronauts as they work on the damaged telescope (and conjoined shuttle), we are – or at least I was – inclined to view these images as awe-inspiring.

Conceivably, images of Earth and of the Heavens have become ubiquitous, such that we look at them without thinking very much when we see them. Nonetheless, we can look at them sometimes and feel that sense of being small, of feeling lucky to breathe, of feeling lucky – mind-bogglingly lucky – to exist at all in a universe that is so dark and cold.

The duration of the shot/take is here important: for no doubt many viewers might regard the Earth and the Heavens in an unthinking fashion, especially were they to pass by rapidly, as can often happen in films set in space. However, because we get so long to contemplate in this opening sequence (as well as at other times), the very duration of these shots helps to maximise the possibility of this sort of response.

If one still feels inclined to say ‘but we know that these are not real images, and therefore I cannot feel about them anything “philosophical” along the lines suggested here’, then perhaps my only attempt to get such a reader to reconsider would be by saying that it is perhaps important that Stone is up in space working on a telescope.

For, telescopes like Hubble in fact have digital cameras. That is, they do not take images of space that have an indexical link to reality – as per analogue photos defined above. Rather, telescopes like Hubble take digital images of space – what we see has no indexical link to what was before the camera at the time of the image’s taking, for what we see is in ‘reality’ only made up of the 1s and 0s that form digital code – and yet these digital images still form the foundation of our best, scientific understanding of the universe.

In other words, it is only in art/cinema that the indexicality issue seems to loom so large; in science, there seems to be no such problem (a likely overstatement, but I hope its spirit is understood).

And when faced with the vastness of the universe, and with our own insignificance and mortality, we are confronted with the void, with death. Perhaps it is for this reason that the film then feels compelled to suture into a disaster movie/game scenario: genre functions as the coping mechanism for us to deal with the fact that ultimately there is nothing but the void, that ultimately digital images are indices, not of the world, but of the void itself.

But cannily, the genre is, as we know, a disaster movie: Stone has to save herself from the perils of space, just as many movie characters before her have saved themselves from sinking ships and alien invasions.

In other words, the film works hard to maintain the notion of a threat of death. And here the ’embodied’ nature of the film becomes important: as many spectators testify, and as the supposedly ‘immersive’ nature of both 3D and large format cinema (IMAX) reinforce (especially when working in conjunction), it becomes as if we are ‘there’ with Stone. That is, we ‘experience’ what Stone experiences, namely a fear of death.

We particularly ‘experience’ this fear through the film’s use of sound, as has been widely noted. We are given to hearing Stone’s breathing – with oxygen forming a central theme of the film, as well as her heartbeat, and I for one as a viewer did often find myself tensing up at crucial moments.

Also key to the film is the notion of touch, and in particular of gripping. The human mirror neuron system functions in such a way that when we see conspecifics (other humans) trying to grip an object, the same neurons fire in our brain as fire in the brain of the person doing the gripping.

Here the film’s editing becomes key. For while the movie is defined by long takes that suggest massive scale – lending to the film a temporal, experiential realism (‘real time’) that sits alongside the film’s perceptual realism, the close ups of hands trying to grasp objects that will save the life of Stone (and Kowalski) give to the film a ‘haptic’ quality, such that we are not just feeling what the characters are feeling, but also feeling for something to hold on to in the same way that they are.

Perhaps it is important that the threat in this film is human caused. Aside from some potential digs at the Russians for launching a missile at one of their own satellites – the initial cause for the débris – it is not necessary for this film to resort to aliens as threat.

By making the threat ‘human’ in origin, Gravity seems to offer no escape from the void, retaining a level of plausibility that in turns helps the film to seem realistic.

As Stone begins to despair, she finds a Chinese radio operator who has a dog that barks and a baby that cries. It is a remarkable moment when Stone barks along with the dog: the barking seems to be the expression of the inner void that the film seems to want to depict.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stone has lost a child in her past; that is, she is a woman in despair, overwhelmed by her helplessness before the lack of justice in the universe. For her, work – conceptual space travel – becomes the device that helps her to fill not the void created by the loss of her child, but the fact that the void is all around her anyway. Death is everywhere.

(Perhaps it takes a Mexican director, a compatriot of Octavio Paz, a celebrant of the Day of the Dead, to get a handle on death in this way. Although Danny Boyle’s remarkable Sunshine (UK/USA, 2007) also has a strong understanding of death within the context of a space film.)

I have repeatedly said that Gravity is realistic, and yet the film is also full of symbolic images. Symbolic images potentially challenge the idea of realism, because in real life there arguably are no symbols.

I am thinking in particular of Stone in the foetal position as star-child, or Stone continually being reborn as the film progresses, emerging from womb after womb.

Nonetheless, while symbolic, these moments also visualise something important: namely that, in being continually reborn, we get a sense in which Stone is consistently becoming. That is, she does not settle for who she is and lean back and die, but instead she consistently fights/struggles to overcome her situation.

This may be a (female twist?) on the classical male heroism of normative cinema. But on another level it suggests that Stone learns, that she consistently is taking positive lessons from her interactions with the void/with death, and using these to project herself forwards into life. In other words, even though the film has various symbols of rebirth, Gravity seems to suggest that Stone paradoxically becomes via her interactions with the void, it inspiring in her ever deeper coping strategies that come in the form of her will to survival.

If I have tried to avoid spoilers so far, I am about to offer up a description of the final scene, so you have been warned…

If movies like E.T. present a defiance of gravity – with the defiance of gravity/fantasy being a key aspect of cinema – Cuarón paradoxically (since this is a big budget special effects movie) represents gravity as inevitable. The film must be dragged down to Earth eventually.

And nowhere for me is this more clear than after Stone has landed back on Earth (conveniently in a small lake). Stone (who like all stones must fall) swims to the shore and lies on the beach. We see her grip the sand, then stand up and walk away.

Briefly we get to see during this final sequence one of Stone’s footprints in the sand. The footprint is another index: like light hitting the analogue film stock, so, too, is a footprint a direct imprint of the human standing on that spot at a particular place in time.

In other words, as Stone breathes air and touches the sand, so, too, does she make an impression on it. After much time in space touching objects with gloves (even if keeping a grip is, in every sense perhaps, key to her survival), she is now in touch with reality again.

In other words, having fled into empty space after the loss of her child, she is now able to be in and with the world again. She can believe in the world again. And so maybe the whole film is her fantasy – a fantasy of the void in order to help her escape the void and to believe in the world again.

But we also have here a sense in which the world is our only refuge from the void. Perhaps even our experiential perceptions are attempts for to us impose a pattern on what is otherwise essentially formless, what is otherwise just an empty void, dead.

As such, we cannot ever really see reality/the void, even if we can feel its presence everywhere, just as we feel gravity.

Gravity may be a film that is full of non-indexical, digital images. And yet, if the power of the false that we use/need in order not to be overwhelmed by the void is sufficient to make us believe in the world – as happens for Stone – then perhaps the power of the false that is Gravity can also help us viewers to believe in the world as well.

Digital cinema may be empty like the void; but like the void, what it can do is to spur us to embrace the world and our fragile lives as best we can.