The Cannes Film Festival loves its controversies. Last year, we had the Danish director, Lars Von Trier, being declared persona-non-grata by the Festival after he praised Hitler, much to the chagrin of Jews all over the world.
This year, we have a Chinese movie in competition, A Touch of Sin, which shocks us by its anti-government stance. It has a lot of critical scenes which refer to the country’s social and political ills.
Here are some examples: One, the notorious case of a pedicurist in 2009 who stabbed and killed a local bureaucrat after he slapped her and tried to rape her. Two, the 2011 high-speed train accident in China that killed 40 people and opened a Pandora’s Box. Out flew a major scandal in the Railway Ministry. Three, sweatshop workers committing suicide unable to bear the pressure at work.
What seems quite curious is that the movie was co-produced by the Shanghai Film Group, which means that it had State approval of the script! Is China getting liberal?
Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin, which was screened on Thursday, appears to have been fuelled by the director’s anger at Chinese society. It mirrors his first movie, Xiao Wu, which was technically an underground one and also poured out frustration.
A Touch of Sin is very violent in a Tarantino style, and has been inspired by newspaper reports. Admittedly, all that Jia tells us through his work, which feels like a documentary, is well known, and what one could have expected in that case is a certain sophistication in scripting and editing. Both are lacking.
Using professional actors, Jia narrates four real stories which travel through China of poverty-stricken migrants, primitive motorbikes, fancy cars and fast trains. The frames have a liberal dash of Chinese zodiac symbols like oxen, tiger, rat and horse.
In the stories, we see an angry migrant worker on a shooting spree, a receptionist at a sauna who is assaulted by a rich client and a young factory hand moving from one job to another.
These stories are not connected in a sense, but the common thread running along them is people’s rage and irritation. The film is certainly provocative, though so long that some of the scenes appear such a drag.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival for Hindustan Times)