中国电影摄制者的歌剧 (The Opera of a Chinese Filmmaker)
By Cian M. Russell
I sat pondering which direction to go in, as they appear infinite. With a desire to dig into the depictions of socioeconomic class in film, I sat pondering a place where many, at least here in the West, have heard a lot about, but remain mostly unfamiliar with. With my prior experiences with Chinese cinema being rather limited to wuxia stories such as House of Flying Daggers, and historical dramas as Farewell My Concubine, I accepted the challenge of analyzing Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke and his 2013 anthology film A Touch of Sin. This film follows the lives of four working-class people in China through a time of great economic development and change. Having only recently heard of Jia, I was startled, as well as deeply captivated, by his carefully strung orchestra of sight and sound in which A Touch of Sin truly is. Its depictions of class in a rapidly developing society look different from a Monday to a Wednesday, where a few have seized opportunity, sometimes by unethical means, and the rest, until recent years, have been left behind.
As China has evolved many depictions of its evolution have been shown in Jia’s films, which are a reminder of the effects of globalization and almighty capitalism on society, and the undesirable reaction of those caught trying to escape its grasp. As spoken from the mind and mouth of an unemployed working-class person from a poor area of Chengdu, Sichuan province being interviewed by Dr. Hai Ren, Associate Professor of East Asian Studies and Anthropology at the University of Arizona in 2007:
If you want to understand changes and transformation in China, you cannot just look here [the poor neighborhood], you should go to the central areas of the city to experience the lives of mainstream society. In the process of social transformation, some people’s lives become better and some become worse. People here are in the latter situation. But overall, China gets better and society becomes more peaceful…It is no use to consider the problems of marginalized people. China’s future is represented by mainstream society. If you look at the United States, there have been so many problems such as racism, crimes, and rising income gaps between the rich and the poor. However, the United States is so stable. (Ren 1)
Despite the interviewee suggesting that researchers look to the mainstream of Chinese society, Jia Zhangke, in his films, does the complete opposite, looking into the struggles of everyday Chinese people. This interview also being from 2007 shows what is obvious to the reader of this essay, that the problems in the United States, such as racism, crimes, and the ever-growing income-inequality have not led to further stability, but rather to a grand conjunction of competing forces, inching closer and closer towards confrontation. The interview also signifies how many in China viewed its progress, as a collective good. According to the BBC’s Jack Goodman, China has appeared to have corrected course, slowly but surely through their poverty alleviation campaign where they have claimed to eliminate abject poverty by the World Bank standards (Goodman). Jia’s film tells the story of a much different place, at a different time; a country at a crossroads. His fearless depictions of class in this film have created a stark contrast to what Hollywood often presents to American audiences on this topic.
In A Touch of Sin, Jia correctly sights the differences between the working-class protagonists in each of his anthologies and those would-be exploiters. In the first story of the anthology Dahai, a worker in a coal mine in Shanxi province has witnessed the corruption of a local government official and the new owner of the coal mine. Dahai’s claim is that before the reforms the mine was the property of the state, and therefore the property of the people, who should benefit collectively from it. Instead, common to China in the post-reform period, deals were made by local government officials and ambitious budding capitalists looking to privatize the commons. After trying to bring his point up to the local government chief and the boss of the mine, Dahai was badly beaten and bribed into not filing a report of wrongdoing to officials in Beijing. Having suffered humiliation in his local village and being convinced his path was the correct one, Dahai set out on a mission to exact revenge upon the village chief, the boss, and anyone else standing in the way. Dahai’s story in the film highlights the differences of power between the classes in a rapidly developing China, and the reaction to it, by the powerless.
Jia’s second story is of Zhou San. Zhou San is a thief and murderer from a working-class family in a village outside of the metropolis of Chongqing. Zhou San appears to be a hard to deal with person but has a deep love for his family. It appears as though he is running from the authorities. When asked by his wife, when he is in Burma, if he could buy a cell phone so that they may talk to one another, Zhou San mentions that it is too dangerous. Shortly after he shoots a woman walking out of a bank and steals her designer handbag. To me, Zhou San represents the crime the working-class and the poor take up as a result of there being more obstacles and less opportunity towards socioeconomic mobility.
The third story in Jia’s anthology tells the tale of Xiao Yu. Xiao Yu is a spa receptionist who was carrying on an affair with a middle-class married man, whom she thought loved her and was trying to convince him to leave his wife, in order to prove it. Xiao Yu gives her married lover an ultimatum to divorce his wife by six months, or they are finished. After a visit to her mother, Xiao Yu returns to her workplace. Upon returning into town, the workers she was accompanying are stopped and asked to pay a toll for passage by officials of that town. Just as we see all over the world, Jia shines a light on the fact that working-class and poor people are paying the costs of the damage of corporations and corrupt governments. As the night falls, the corrupt local government officials that were imposing an unsanctioned tax on travelers arrived at the sauna in which Xiao Yu worked. She was approached by the government men and asked if she could be their masseuse. She asserted that she is a receptionist and not a masseuse. The men were persistent and insisted that she massage them and that she will be paid well. After her continued refusal, the men became violent and proceeded to physically assault her, until she had had enough and drew a knife which was used for peeling fruit and struck her attackers down, disappearing traumatized into the night. This story in the anthology to me represents the mind of the bourgeoisie or the monied privileged classes, and their thoughts that with their money, they can buy whatever or whomever they want. They look at we, the working classes and poor, as a tool to gain them further wealth or to satisfy their cheap desires.
In the final leg of Jia’s anthology, we observe the end of the life of Xiao Hui. A young migrant worker from Hunan province. Having been accused of being responsible for the workplace injury of his colleague, Xiao Hui fled the factory where he worked to a nearby town. Through a friend who works in tech manufacturing, he gains employment as a waiter in a nightclub and befriends a girl from his home province that works as a hostess. As their relationship grows, Xiao Hui asks the girl to leave their work there. The girl discloses to Xiao Hui that she cannot leave because she works as a hostess to support her daughter. Xiao Hui is a naive boy, who still believes in things like destiny, even in this cruel exploitative world, where money and power triumph over justice. He is but a small fish with large dreams in a vast ocean of small fish with large dreams, which seldom become realized. He is met with the reality of being poor and without education or prospects. Xiao Hui quickly becomes disillusioned with his work at the nightclub and departs to find a job in the tech factory where his friend works. Faced with the clear reality of his circumstances of having no money, without seeing how his life could improve, and enduring a workplace devoid of anything resembling humanity, Xiao Hui flung himself from his dormitory building.
The themes and images brought by Jia in this film struck me in the depths of my consciousness. Jia Zhangke and every person who laid hands on the making of this film has delivered such an unexpected tale of the human condition. The core of the struggle workers and the poor face in China, are faintly different from those endured by the working class and the poor, here in the US, or in Britain, Japan, or South Africa, against the wealthy exploitative capitalist interests. While there is a great deal of intersectionality between us, the core of the struggle stands. The struggle between those that have, those that do not have, as well as the complexity of human beings. Jia understands and projects this fact onto the screen with the cunning skill and deftness only a master filmmaker can deliver. No CGI effects, no big budget. Just raw human grit and emotion, without the airbrushing of life, commonly seen in Western films; realistic images based on the real stories of real people.
While Jia conveys the message of class in his film, this is not the only thing to take away from watching this film. Shot in 35 mm, this film is a visual work of art, with each scene being carefully plotted. Throughout the film the Steadicam technique was utilized, which according to film writer Declan McGrath, is a new phase of evolution for Jia. McGrath writes in Cinéaste, “The rough-hewn naturalism of Jia’s handheld, observational style and long takes is now replaced by the smooth use of a Steadicam, controlled cutting, and an unashamedly intensified reality” (McGrath 37). There were several instances of the following shot being employed as well. Throughout the film, I had noticed that there was an absence of a musical score to most of the film. The soundtrack consists of the normal sounds of Chinese society, with the occasional traditional instrument or Chinese opera singer. This allows the viewer to be immersed in the actual world of the characters of this film, and the sounds which surround them. There are several striking scenes that seem to imprint themselves upon the viewer’s memory. Most notably when Zhou San is walking along the sidewalk, while the camera follows alongside, with New Year’s fireworks bursting into light in the background (0:51:10). Or the moment Xiao Yu emerges bloodied and traumatized from slaying her assaulters, as Jia films her using a medium-long shot, as Xiao Yu progresses toward the camera (1:29:10). The camera work enhances those scenes and makes them more intense and felt by the viewer, and I’ll admit, they took my breath away.
While A Touch of Sin is both a beautiful and tragic artwork, the stories of this film are in fact very real, as all four anthology stories are based on real people and true events. These stories may have unfolded in China, but they could have very well taken place anywhere. As the world finds itself in the grips of the ever-dominant grip of global capitalism, its byproducts, as seen in Jia’s work will no doubt continue to materialize. The working class and poor will continue to be pushed toward despair and fighting amongst one another as we are systematically exploited by the hegemon of large industry with the backing of government. While the characters in Jia’s film represent the extremes that some may go to or suffer through, there is an alternative to these extreme acts. Display solidarity with your fellow worker. It matters not which land they come from, who they pray to, what color their skin is, or which gender or sexual orientation they are. If workers are being exploited, STRIKE! If our habitats are being poisoned, STRIKE! If marginalized members of your community are being victimized, or persecuted, join an organization that supports and stands with them in solidarity. If there are unionized workers at your workplace, join them. If no union exists, band together with your fellow workers and create one. The working class and the poor have the power in which to shake off the chains of the global capitalist elite. We have the numbers; tell them we will no longer be ground between the gears of corporate greed and corrupt governments. We can begin to create a better world and it begins with the solidarity of workers. That we will no longer allow corruption. We will no longer tolerate poverty and hunger for our people. We will not let the vulnerable members of our society be subject to racial or sexual assault and abuse. And we will not allow our young people to fall into the despair that permeates the capitalist hegemon. But what if it’s just you and I right now? Yes, we are small, but we are not alone. Just as a tiny pebble is dropped into a pond, so do the ripples resonate far across the water.
Goodman, Jack. “Has China Lifted 100 Million People out of Poverty?” BBC News, BBC, 28 Feb. 2021, www.bbc.com/news/56213271.
Jia, Zhangke, director. A Touch of Sin. Xstream Pictures, Office Kitano, Shanghai Film Group, 2013.
McGrath, Declan. “The Films of Jia Zhangke Poetic Realist of Globalization.” Cinéaste, vol. 41, no. 4, 2016, pp. 34–39. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26356353. Accessed 23 May 2021.
Ren, Hai. The Middle Class in Neoliberal China: Governing Risk, Life-Building, and Themed Spaces, Taylor & Francis Group, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/linnbenton-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1125256.
Yale Film Analysis Website, 2021, filmanalysis.yale.edu/.