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Film Review

A Touch of Sin

China in the post Maoist period (from 1976) has certainly developed and prospered but marked by rampant corruption and the growth of an elite governing class which has become wealthy and largely unrestrained in their power. Critics are calling it a keptocracy. Corruption has been exacerbated by a shift to state sanctioned capitalism, with the construction of enormous complexes and factories. Not surprisingly this pattern of corruption has produced widespread resentment among ordinary people, many of whom are struggling to make a living. Corruption takes many forms, from bribery to skimming contracts to embezzlement to outright theft. Although China has a legal system and strong anti-corruption laws, local officials, such as village and township chiefs, county leaders, and various agency functionaries wield great power, nearly absolute, and often extract bribes for basic services or favors. Nepotism is rife, and poorly paid local officials and their families have accumulated fortunes. And woe to those who try to protest or become whistle blowers. Beatings by thugs, imprisonment, and sometimes outright killing is all too often their fate. It takes either a brave or a very dumb person to protest. The Chinese government, at every level, is very sensitive to reportage on corruption and swift retribution usually follows. Even on the international level, the Chinese government reacts strongly against attempts to expose corruption. When the NY Times and Bloomberg News wrote about the enormous fortunes accumulated by senior government officials and their families, a dozen reporters from both firms had their visas revoked and will have to leave the country. Occasionally, very senior officials, aware of how damaging widespread corruption is to the legitimacy of the government, speak out, but few expect much to change.

Even in a slightly more open climate, it's hard to imagine a Chinese director looking squarely at the terrible problem of corruption and choosing it as the subject of a powerful film. Yet that is exactly what Jia Zhang-Ke has done in "A Touch of Sin." Jia is an important film maker, originally producing unsanctioned (underground) films, but about 15 years ago the Chinese government began to allow somewhat greater freedom for film makers. He has produced 13 films since then, some documentaries, often with a focus on the human cost of modernization in China. Several of these films won awards at Cannes but few played here in the US. However his "Still Life" (2008) won an important award at Cannes. Here Jia looked at the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and the destruction of traditional villages, with its impact on the families being evicted. It was essentially a lament for the past that China was losing in its rush to development and brought Jia to the attention of American audiences.

Jia's latest film, "A Touch of Sin" has just opened. He tells four related stories, all focused on corruption and the human cost of development. The first story is that of Dahai, an outspoken coal miner in Shanxi (Jia's home province), who is outraged that the village chief has sold the town's coal mine and become rich while the town is suffering. He tries to complain, but is rebuffed and ridiculed, with the villagers afraid to support him. He even suspects the post office clerk of conspiring because she insists on a proper address on Dahai 's letter of protest. When he disrupts a ceremony welcoming the village chief in his new aircraft, the chief's thug beats him, and the villagers turn away, knowing that he will not find justice. The second chapter follows Zhou San, a silent outlaw type of guy riding his motorcycle into town to see his wife and mother after many years away. The third story is that of Xiao Yu, a receptionist at an elite spa, really an upscale brothel, who is trying to support her young daughter. The scenes in the spa are simultaneously funny, appalling and sad, with a troop of pretty young women in skimpy Army uniforms parading in front of customers in order to be selected. Ultimately Xiao Yu is goaded into revenge by a beating from an arrogant customer. The fourth story is that of a handsome young man who flees a grueling factory job, ending up as a greeter in another elite spa. He meets one of the performers, and they become attracted to each other. All of the stories are linked by geography and time, and all show the exploitation of the poor and the seeming triumph of the elite. Animals figure prominently, often as metaphors. His scenes are fascinating with their chronicle of everyday life in a society that is rushing forward, enriching a few, and trampling many. Jia's cinematography is outstanding. The scenes in the factories are powerful and depressing, which made me reflect on my new i-phone. Clearly, there is a cost beyond what I paid, but someone else paid it. There are some violent scenes here which clearly owe a debt to "Pulp Fiction" but they are few. The real violence is to the human spirit. Jia has made a very fine film that says much about contemporary China. I loved "A Touch of Sin" and think it will become a classic. Running time: 133 minutes. Only screening at the Rafael (San Rafael) and the Roxie (SF). A great film to start the New Year.

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