I was biking across a bridge near my apartment in Beijing a few months ago when I saw a man pinching the back of a woman’s neck and pushing her head over the railing while screaming into her ear. People were walking past them, purposely not noticing. I pulled over, got his attention, and, when I’d exhausted my stock of synonyms for “shameful,” “pathetic,” and “lose face,” went on my way. I couldn’t stop thinking about it the rest of the day, and the next. I fantasized about what I should have done instead, mostly acts of terrific violence.
Everyone in China has stories like this. An American friend recently described seeing a man sitting on a sidewalk in Beijing choking on his own vomit. He intervened over the protests of two vendors standing nearby, and may have saved the man’s life. In 2011, a two-year-old girl in Guangdong was run over by a truck. A security camera recorded 18 people walking by without helping. The ignored injustice has become a familiar trope in the Chinese media, each new incident provoking a round of soul-searching—and rage. Occasionally this rage turns into a response. When local security guards in Guangdong province pushed a pregnant migrant worker to the ground in 2011, riots ensued. That same year, a businessman in Jiangxi set off bombs targeting government buildings after failing to get compensation for his demolished house. It took the emergence of Weibo, China’s Twitter, for Chinese people to realize these violent incidents aren’t isolated, the Chinese film director Jia Zhangke told the New York Times: “[T]hese kind of stories happen in China all the time.”
No wonder the bloody killings in Jia’s new film, A Touch of Sin, feel so real, even when they’re cartoonish: The movie’s four vignettes, each about a person driven to violence by the pressures of society, are ripped from the headlines. In the first story, a Shanxi miner named Dahai launches a one-man campaign against a local boss for refusing to share his profits with the villagers as promised. When his complaints go unanswered, he takes matters—and a shotgun—into his own hands. The second story follows hangdog drifter Zhou San as he returns home to Chongqing, watches the Chinese New Year fireworks with his son, shoots a woman coming out of a bank, takes her purse, and skips town. A sauna employee named Xiaoyu, abandoned by her married lover then beaten by his jealous wife, snaps when a client tries to force himself on her. She leaves brandishing a knife, covered in his blood. We watch Xiaohui, a teenage factory worker in Guangdong, suffer a series of crushing disappointments—romantic, financial, filial—with tragic results.
The movie won best screenplay at Cannes, but it hasn’t been as well-received by the Chinese censors. (I had to go to New York to see it.) No surprise there: Jia’s take on contemporary China—corrupt officials in cahoots with sleazy businessmen tolerated by spineless citizens—is pretty bleak. Reviewers have noted A Touch of Sin’s debt to wuxia, a classical Chinese genre that typically features a martial artist/knight-errant on a quest to right wrongs. (The title plays on that another famous wuxia film, A Touch of Zen.) But it also belongs to a more recent genre: the Everyman Rampage film. This category includes Taxi Driver (Travis Bickle wants to escape loneliness) and Falling Down (Michael Douglas wants breakfast). These anti-heroes aren’t necessarily out to settle scores—they’re just mad as hell and they’re not gonna take it anymore. The difference, at risk of stating the obvious, is that A Touch of Sin is Chinese. Whereas Taxi Driver’s Bickle rages vaguely at the moral depredation of New York City and Douglas in Falling Down bemoans the price of a can of Coke, the rampages in A Touch of Sin stem from ills particular to contemporary China: economic inequality (mine bosses exploiting villagers), social instability (migrant workers floating from job to job), a weak social safety net (an injured factory worker has no insurance), and a desperate sense of every man for himself (don’t even ask about women). Only once, toward the end of the film, does one character show mercy toward another—and tragedy still ensues. A Touch of Sin describes a world in which no good deed goes unexploited, so good deeds are few.
Is Jia Zhangke endorsing ultraviolence? He says no: “I don’t want this film to inspire imitation or to convince people that violence is good. I trust that the power of this film lies in its ability to encourage people to think about violence, to reflect on it.” Yet the characters are clearly meant to be sympathetic, their actions a form of tragic heroism. “From the perspective of individual dignity, I personally really admire them,” he said. Jia isn’t alone. When a man from Guangdong province set off a bomb in the Beijing airport in July after being beaten by local security guards, his action drew wide sympathy. (It might have been different if he’d hurt anyone other than himself.) In this sense, the film reflects a strain of public opinion: No one wants violence, but sometimes it’s the only recourse.
Critics argue that for all the movie’s negativity, it goes easy on the country’s highest powers. The villains are all rotten individuals: local officials, corrupt businessmen, highway robbers. Blame falls on bad men, not on the system. This notion squares nicely with President Xi Jinping’s recent anti-corruption campaign. The problem, according to this logic, lies in the greed of BMW-driving, Rolex-wearing local officials—not, say, the absence of rule of law, a functioning court system, or political accountability.
But this read doesn’t give Jia enough credit. It’s clear from the film that evil deeds stem at least in part from a crushing system. Dahai reaches for his gun only after trying and failing to petition the central government. Xiaohui snaps not just because his boss is cruel, but because the factory doesn’t have insurance to pay for his friend’s injury. Likewise, the 18 people who walked past the injured two-year-old in Guangdong weren’t necessarily bad people; they were scared. In a country with no “good Samaritan” laws (until recently) and a history of victims suing their helpers, they were acting rationally, albeit monstrously.
This isn’t exactly the image of China the Communist Party wants to project. Even though Jia cooperated with censors, agreeing to cut dialogue that was deemed inappropriate, the film’s takeaway—that violence is understandable, if not justified—can’t sit well with a government dealing with the fallout from two recent high-profile attacks. The irony of suppressing A Touch of Sin, of course, is that the movie is about the unintended consequences of suppression. But you probably won’t see Chinese cineastes rioting in the streets. The average person here has never heard of Jia Zhangke, let alone A Touch of Sin, and, if a government ban on media coverage of the film is any indication, probably never will. To the movie’s four tragic vignettes, we can now add a fifth: that of the movie itself.
Christopher Beam is a staff writer at The New Republic.