A Touch of Sin: a factual representation of 21st century China

By He Qinglian on March 21, 2014;
Source article in Chinese: 21世纪的中国《清明上河图》 ——贾樟柯《天注定》观后感

It was until after I watched Jia Zhengke's A Touch of Sin, which original name in Chinese meant “predestined”, that I realized why he gave the film such a fatalistic name.

This is a film depicting four incidents that happened in China, the occurrence of each of them caused a serious rift in the country. And it should be noted that these four incidents took place between 2001 and 2010, a decade that was most crucial in determining the sociopolitical direction of China. In this ten years, the social distribution pattern became stagnant; the relationship between the people and the government changed from mutual trust to mutual distrust.

The tragedy of Hu Dahai

I presumed that most of the people who watched Jia's film would know that the story of Hu Dahai depicted the killing Hu Wenhai did in Shanxi in 2001. But compared to Chinese media reports of Hu Wenhai when he was sentenced to death in 2002, Jia portrayed the killer in a different perspective.

On October 26, 2001, Hu Wenhai gunned down 14 people in Dayukou Village, Wujinshan Town, Yuci District, Jinzhong City, Shanxi. Back then, the government of China saw “rule by law” as the governance principle and the authorities aimed to turn China into a country which the law would be the means to govern. And thus, reports of Hu Wenhai emphasized his disregard of the law, his unauthorized possession of guns, and his claiming of lives. Those reports, however, sidelined the events leading to the killing, namely corruption and tax evasion relating to a coal mine at Dayukou Village, Hu Wenhai mobilized villagers to jointly sue the coal mine, and he himself filed multiple complaints to the authority—to no avail.

The death of Hu Wenhai should in fact be attributed to the institution which officials cover up for one another. In the film, Hu Dahai, an honest person who believed the faraway Zhongnanhai would offer justice, encountered the collusion among members of the village committee and was isolated by other villagers whose interests were also infringed upon—this was what happened to Hu Wenhai in real life: the 121 villagers who jointly sued the coal mine with Hu all stayed away from him later on.

When the fictional character Hu Dahai demanded transparency in the financial affairs of village, he got beaten up. Other villagers showed little sympathy to Hu, they instead mocked Hu and nicknamed him “golf ball”. Feeling humiliated, despair and angry, Hu took his gun to “hunt” .

Back then, the journalists recorded two things about Hu Wenhai in spite of various limits, including their own insufficient understanding. First, they recorded Hu as a man who took responsibility for what he did. Whether in court or facing reporters, Hu claimed repeatedly that “I feel no remorse, only regrets—that I didn't manage to kill all those I should!”

Second, when Hu was about to be executed, he shook hands with every of the criminal police officers tasked with his execution and said goodbye. Hu's calmness in facing his death moved me deeply. To this date, I can still remember how I felt when I saw this.

After 2001, drastic changes took place in Chinese society. More and more people experienced the pain of land grab, of forced eviction, of losing their home, and suffered under the arbitrariness of power.
These changes were best reflected in how the public viewed Yang Jia's assault of police officiers on July 1, 2008.Yang Jia was seen as a hero and not a murderer.

In my view, Jiang Wu, the actor whose role in the film was Hu Dahai did a great job in portraying that character; and the director of this film included a scene in which the fictional Hu Dahai shot at a man who was relentlessly beating his horse[1], a heroic act that made his sense of righteous stood out even more sharply.

After I saw the movie, I have been guessing the reason why this fictional character shared the same name of a decorated general under Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang: perhaps the writer of the film thought that if Hu Wenhai lived at a time of farmer uprising, he could be a brave warrior like the Hu Dahai in history and not a killer.

Fate of grass-root individuals in China
In the film, three individuals from the grassroots were depicted. The first of such individuals was Zhou San, a gunman who killed and robbed for his own survival. Some guessed the character was based on Zhou Kehua, a serial robber and killer who was active in Suzhou, Hunan and Chongqing. But in my view, this fictional gunman epitomized many individuals with the same fate.

Zhou San
There was a description of the town that Zhou San grew up in, a place where inhabitants found themselves out of place and with no future in the midst of a modernization process. Most of the young men there led idle life without nothing much to do, they killed time with mahjong and gambling, and some lived off their wives' money. Zhou San despised these people and chose to become a solo robber.
A tough and merciless man, Zhou would gun down thieves who tried to steal from him; and for his targets, he would take their money and lives without hesitation.

The film did not explain how Zhou came to be a person like that. But judging from the way he prepared before he acted and that he told his wife nothing about where he went, one could see that persons like Zhou pose serious threats to public security in China.

And to me, what happened to Xiaoyu in the movie reflected the life of grass-root women in China. Like most of these women who make a living at saunas and similar venues, Xiaoyu wished she could have a good marriage that would lead her to a better future. When this wish failed to materialize, she could only carry on working as a receptionist. Nonetheless, she refused to be (seen as) a prostitute.

However, the place Xiaoyu worked in attracted sleazy men. And there came a day when she was accosted by some bumptious clients demanding sex. In a nightmarish protracted scene, one of the men—a timid yes-man who, like many others of his kind, showed utter disrespect for people he deemed status lower than himself—slapped Xiaoyu repeatedly with a bundle of banknotes, over and over: “I have money! I have money!” Xiaoyu finally erupted, whipping out a knife and slashing the punters to death.

Seeing no future working at an assembly line, and after he broke company rules by chatting with a co-worker while work was going on, distracting that co-worker into slicing his hand and was ordered to work, with all his earnings given to the injured co-worker, young factory worker Xiaohui fled to Dongguan with a hope to make more money. He got a job at a night club, and found a lover, a prostitute.

But Xiaohui's dream was dashed when he learned that his lover could not leave her job because she needed to support her family. He then went back to work at another assembly line. When the co-worker injured earlier tracked Xiaohui down to demand payment of his money, and his mother asked him to send more money home, he jumped off the roof.

Xiaohui's jumping to his death served as a reminder of both the conditions to which Foxconn subjected its workers in China and the wealth gap between the developed parts of the country and its rural regions, where inhabitants thought big cash can be made in Guangdong. These people count on those who went to work in Guangdong to pay for everything, from house construction, family members' wedding, parents' medical expense, to younger siblings and cousins' school fees.

From the scene which Xiaohui saying again and again on the phone that he didn't overspend, one could tell that on the other side of the phone, Xiaohui's mother, out of unrealistic expectation for how much her son made, blamed him for sending too little money home.

This happened to many factory and white collar workers in Shenzhen as well.

China: a country where people's lot in life is predestined

In my view, this film by Jia Zhangke is essentially a factual representation of 21st century China: it showed the ugly side of the country, the hopelessness of the people, and the resistance of some of them.

Like I pointed out before, China has the characteristics of a pre-modern society, and the successes of individuals there depend not on their own efforts but on their background. In other words, young grass-root individuals are denied the chance of upward mobility, not even with their college education; they could only get by on a meager salary because of an oversupply of labor, and of the sons and daughters of high ranking officials and wealthy people having a monopoly on almost all opportunities to better jobs.

Since the beginning of this century, China has become an immobile country, where the people's lot in life is predestined and would not be changed. And I believe this is why Jia gave his film such a fatalistic name.

[1] There are different accounts as to what kind of animal was actually beaten in the film, one version said it was a cow, and another said it was a horse. Since I did not see the movie myself, I don't know which one happened. -- Translator note.