If you want to see modern Chinese life at its darkest, consider A Touch of Sin.
The film is a series of loosely knit vignettes that revolve around themes of violence, greed, sex, power and crime. And there's nothing subtle about the imagery.
In one scene, a corrupt businessman tries to force a receptionist at a massage parlor to have sex with him by beating her with wads of cash — until she stabs him to death.
There's the young worker at a Foxconn factory who leaps from his dormitory roof in despair. But the most violent story follows a coal mine employee who goes on a righteous rampage, killing a government official and a rich mine owner who've swindled local villagers.
The employee — named Da Hai, which means "Big Ocean" in Mandarin — hides in the mine owner's Maserati. The owner discovers him and tries to buy him off. The next image is Big Ocean's blood-spattered face in the back seat — as in the famous scene in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.
Director Jia Zhangke says he was inspired to write A Touch of Sin — which won best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival this year — after reading so many news stories about violent conflict in Chinese society.
"These unfortunate events are all because of rapid changes and the economic transformation," he says. "The movie discusses the serious corruption problem, the problem of small groups of people controlling resources and the very big gap between rich and poor. It's against this backdrop that we see a lot of individuals erupt in violent rebellion."
The movie's four vignettes are all based on true stories, giving the film a ripped-from-the-headlines Law & Order feel.
Jia says the film's characters — like ordinary Chinese people — are driven to violence by powerlessness and frustration.
"Behind a lot of societal problems is a problem with fairness," he says. "When people feel there is a lot of unfairness, and they have no way to change it, they choose violence and there are more and more tragedies."
A Touch of Sin is Jia's seventh feature. His first three were banned in China, but since 2004 he's worked within the government system, submitting his movies to a censorship board for approval.
Jia, now 43, says censors requested surprisingly few cuts for this film. One involved a scene where the corrupt mine owner arrives in his private jet. Workers greet him with a band and mindless cheers.
"I planned to use a real government slogan that goes, 'Get rich together, pursue a comfortable life.' They suggested I cut it out," he says. "This story is about a huge wealth gap. People apparently didn't get rich together."
In real life, the Chinese didn't get rich together either. A communist country in name only, China now has a bigger income gap than the U.S.
Pushing The Boundaries
Justin Chang, senior film critic for Variety, gave A Touch of Sin a mixed review.
"I can't recall having seen a film in recent years coming out of China that was perhaps this direct and this blunt," he says.
Chang found the vignettes uneven, the style pulpy. But he was struck that it got past China's censors.
"I was expecting, 'Wow, there's going to be some blowback from this, right?' How could they allow something so naked and angry to be shown? And I don't know the answer to that."
Director Jia thinks he does. He credits China's more aggressive news reporting and the power of Sina Weibo, the country's version of Twitter. Newspapers and social media publicized the true stories on which Jia based his plot — meaning the stories became so well-known, Jia theorizes, that the government probably saw no point in censoring them in his film.
"Weibo created a space for this movie to be accepted," he says. "Because of Weibo, our understanding of the reality in Chinese society is very different from before, when there was more news censorship."
Jia says that's how the Internet in China pushes the boundaries of free expression for creative people like him and better informs an audience that will be more receptive to his films.
"It's hard to imagine making such a movie five to 10 years ago," he says. "People would think I was just seeking attention, and that stories like this were rare."
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