NEW YORK – The times we live in are often most clearly reflected in the mirror of art. Much has been written about post-communism in Russia and China. But two recent films, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, made in China in 2013, and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, made in Russia in 2014, reveal the social and political landscapes of these countries more precisely than anything I have seen in print.
Jia’s movie is episodic; four loosely linked stories about lone acts of extreme violence, mostly culled from contemporary newspaper stories. Leviathan is about a decent man whose life is ruined by the mayor of his town in collusion with the Russian Orthodox Church and a corrupt judiciary.
Both films are visually stunning, despite their stories’ bleakness. The dark skies over the northern Russian coast in Leviathan look ravishing, and Jia even manages to make the concrete and glass jungle of Shenzhen, the monster city between Guangzhou and Hong Kong, look gorgeous. The other thing both films share is a fascination with mythical stories, the Book of Job in Leviathan, and martial-arts fiction in A Touch of Sin.
Real estate plays a major part in both movies. In the first episode of A Touch of Sin, the local boss has become a private-plane-owning billionaire by stripping and selling all of his region’s collective assets. Everything in this new China – where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still rules, but the ideas of Karl Marx are as dead as they are in Russia – is for sale, even the trappings of its Maoist past. In one scene, we see prostitutes in a nightclub titillating overseas Chinese businessmen by parading up and down in sexy People’s Liberation Army uniforms.