Revenger's tragedy: Zhao Tao in A Touch of Sin.
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Rough justice: A Touch of Sin by Jia Zhangke

In A Touch of Sin, the ordinarily placid and reflective Chinese director Jia Zhangke bloodies his hands - creating technicolour violence from real, grisly stories which take aim at social injustice in China.

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment in A Touch of Sin when Jia Zhangke’s reputation for the calm and contemplative takes a definitive battering. Certainly, it is jeopardised in the opening minutes, when a migrant worker riding a motorbike along a dusty loop of mountain road has his path blocked by three bandits brandishing hatchets. Let’s just say that he gets to continue his journey and they don’t.

That encounter is a mild fracas compared with much of what follows. One man is whacked around the head repeatedly with a shovel; several others are shot at point-blank range; another leaps from a fifth-floor balcony. Admirers of Jia’s Still Life – which won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival and followed two bereft people searching for missing loved ones along the Yangtze River – would be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into the wrong screen. One of the aimless teenage characters in his 2002 film Unknown Pleasures revered Pulp Fiction but the chances of Jia turning into Quentin Tarantino looked slim, at least until now.

Beyond the spattered blood and broken bones, Jia’s usual levels of compassion and social analysis are maintained. When violence erupts, it is out of frustration at a society that nurtures the cruel and corrupt. Nowhere is this more explicit than in the first of the film’s four stories. Dahai (Jiang Wu) is a miner still smarting over the sale of a coal mine 14 years earlier by the village chief. The villagers have yet to see any of the promised profits and Dahai suspects they never will. He harangues the local accountant, accusing him of taking bribes, and tries to file charges against the chief, only to be stymied by bureaucracy. His face is permanently rigid with incredulity. Like many anti-heroes before him, he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. Rather than undermining the social-realist edge of what has gone before, the garish violence doled out by Dahai seems to amplify it. Brutality rarely feels gratuitous if its context has been carefully prepared.

Even so, the remaining stories in A Touch of Sin follow such a similar pattern – building from the domestic to the cataclysmic with horrible inevitability – that the film risks numbing the audience into resignation. The migrant from the opening scene crops up again, returning to his home town for his mother’s birthday and getting trigger-happy. A timid masseuse (played by Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao) musters the courage to give her married lover an ultimatum, which sparks a revenge attack from his wronged wife. And a young factory worker (Luo Lanshan) judged liable for a grisly workplace accident flees town and walks straight into another job that is no less soul-destroying. Anger at social injustice in China is the motivating factor behind the film; many of the incidents depicted were inspired by real events. There’s a thin line, though, between indignation and despair and A Touch of Sin isn’t always on the right side of it.

Working helpfully against the grain is the digital cinematography, which lends a vivid sparkle to the most desolate tableau. Framing the characters in wide shots that incorporate their oppressive surroundings is a textbook way of suggesting that people are the product of their environment but Jia’s regular cinematographer, Yu Lik-wai, adds something else. He brings nobility to figures who might otherwise have been reduced to the bestial. (The distinction between human beings and animals is a running theme; at one point, someone even asks whether animals can commit suicide.)

The images insist on humanity. The masseuse who grabs a quiet cigarette among rows of shower heads that loom like hooded cobras, or the injured miner who resembles Mr Bump in his cradle of bandages, could have looked pitiful. The tenderness of the camera transforms them into Nan Goldin subjects in William Eggleston landscapes.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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