You may reconsider your views on gun control after seeing Jia Zhangke’s parable of modern China A Touch of Sin. It’s as if you gave Stockman, the crusading doctor of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, Dirty Harry’s .44 magnum. At least that’s how the film starts. Dahai (Wu Jiang), a local crusader against corruption (who bears some resemblance to Ai Weiwei), walks around with a blood splattered face after he rids his world of corruption. Nietzsche purportedly came upon the site of a horse being beaten on the streets of Turin and was so traumatized that he never wrote again. Zhangke is plainly drawn to thugs and violence as a metaphor for the violence of the broken social contract that is contemporary China, but also because of its esthetic possibilities. Blood runs throughout the movie like the drip in a Pollock. The director recapitulates this famous scene from Nietzsche, albeit to a different end. After Dahai kills the horse beater, the horse is seen wandering confusedly, pulling its empty cart, not knowing what to do without its sadistic driver. It’s not clear exactly what Zhangke’s trying to say in this scene, but the idea of the beating occurs again and again throughout the movie. Dahai is beaten by the thugs hired by a corrupt local businessman and is mockingly referred to as Mr. Golf (after the golf club with which this is accomplished) by the locals). A young woman who works as a receptionist in a sauna is beaten by two customers and a young worker in one of the huge industrial campuses that populate the movie (the kind that manufactures parts for Apple in Chengdu) throws himself off a balcony to avoid having to carry out a beating. In works like Threepenny Opera, Brecht used thugs and criminals to make his political points and not all Zhangke’s avengers are driven by morality. The movie opens up with the murder of a group of axe wielding thugs, by Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), a thief who is no Robin Hood. If anything the amorality of much of the violence becomes the harder pill to swallow. And yet curiously despite the knives and clubs and guns, ATouch of Sin is no action movie. In fact there are scenes, right out of early Antonioni, where the camera lingers on the irresolvable psycho-social predicaments of his characters and nothing much happens at all.
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