A Touch of Sin

Here’s a question for you: Is it possible to sin in hell? When everything around you is already damned, and where everyone rides in the same ash, can you sin? If I had to guess, I’d say unlikely. There’s no innocence to stain. There’s no white sheet to bloody. You are just smothered, permanently, with suphured air. Sin? Forget about it; no one fucking cares.

In this extraordinary film, a long, quiet and haunting walk in Zhang Jia’ke’s modern China, there is no flame nor brimstone. There is, instead, boredom, large empty roads, ceremonial and joyless welcomes, stabbings, and an epidemic of loneliness. Hell is other people here, all of them. A coal miner campaigning for impossible justice in his small, captured village; a robber apparently driven more by boredom than greed; a sauna-receptionist near-raped by a government official, angry at being disrespected. A Foxxconn employee’s suicide. There is not much touch about any of this – we are pretty much smothered. And given its already hell, I’m not sure any of this counts as sin. The film’s Chinese title, 天注定, which translates roughly as Heaven Dooms, fits a bit better. Here’s the trailer.

Zhang’s four stories are based on real, reported events. They all appalled a nation for a week or so – and then entered into the mythology of what life is like in modern China. Even the Wenzhou high-speed train crash, which hit news screens around the world, gets a small tv-cameo.

Everyone is on their own in this land. Our coal miner’s pleas for justice are ignored by his fellows because they know what will become of complainers; he is beaten with golf clubs and then visited in hospital by the same thugs, who throw a wad of notes at him for his silence. No deal. A businessman visiting a Dongguan sauna (the high-end sort, with a uniformed army of migrant hotties ready to thrill) isn’t so much interested in his girl, or grabbing some warmth away from home, but wants to know about any new “innovations in her service”. When they do interact with each other, people use apple-skinning knives, hunting rifles, those golf clubs, weapons all bent from their original designs.

Our Foxconn factory worker has debts. His mother, someone who might offer him some loving kindness, haggles with him on the phone about missed payments home. The girl he falls for in the sauna has a kid and will not give up her sex-work. There is no comradeship on the factory floor. There’s no histrionics, no sobbing, not a prayer of a prayer. He just jumps out of his dormitory window.

When justice comes, it dives in with violence. Since government officials are the thieves, and the police their henchmen, justice must come from the people. But only from those who have been so thoroughly broken that they do not care what happens to them after. Our coal minder picks up his rifle and goes hunting. The final money shot: the smile on his blood-splattered face. Or the sauna receptionist who knives her rapist. Here are our heroes. Justice is for you to deliver, if you are broken enough to dare. And Zhang also knows that these folk-tale heroes are indeed the people that many in China revere.

And yet, our beautiful story-teller is not entirely despondent. In the closing scene we finally see an act of genuine, if distant, human connection. The wife of the murdered coal baron hires the girl who stabbed her rapist into the factory. There’s a flicker of recognition about the girl’s name. Small mercies in hell are worth something.