Jia Zhang-ke's latest "A Touch of Sin" is dividing critics in Cannes, but the bigger surprise is that Chinese officials haven't censored the film. This more mainstream depiction of Jia's trademark themes of dislocation, alienation, and social and economic inequality in the "new" China will only get further potential international play and more attention, given the film's genre elements.
The first trade reviews from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter suggest that Jia has gone a bit off the deep end, and yet, the film continues to convey, "in arresting detail," writes David Rooney, "assembly-line industrial communities, bleak mining towns [and] the crumbling remnants of China’s past."
With a beleaguered coal-miner, a receptionist, a factory worker, and a younger itinerant worker, Jia's cross-section of lost, lonely and ultimately violent working-class Chinese citizens certainly falls in line with much of his previous work. (When I interviewed the director in 2008, he told me, "It's almost like China is eating its tail. It's going forward, but what it gets in return is disproportionate to what it loses.") And as I wrote last week in a column on MoMA's "Chinese Realities" series, "A Touch of Sin" also seems to mirror the documentary subjects coming out of contemporary China, which often focus on "the once industrious citizens of Mao’s China who are now unemployed, alienated and disenfranchised."
That these same workers are finally propelled to respond with violence to oppression is a major turning point in Jia's work, and perhaps a more lurid turn for China's Sixth Generation realist filmmakers. In Variety, Justin Chang acknowledges the shift, and yet, considers it might be a logical move, with some viewers seeing the film as making "explicit the convulsive undercurrents present in his work all along, exploring the extreme consequences of local corruption and neglect, rampant greed, poor labor conditions and countless other social ills fueled by China’s economic miracle."
Given that these concerns are now writ large--and in bloodshed--one wonders how long the Chinese government will support the film.