The sweeping, heartbreaking, masterfully crafted Platform (2000) established Jia Zhangke as the most important social portraitist working in contemporary Chinese cinema. His films' iconoclastic power emerges from a distinctive marriage of lyricism and authenticity. They tell stories of ordinary life, of work, migration, broken families, growing social inequities, rapid and vertiginous cultural change, and the cumulative effects of China's determination to compete in a global economy. The prolific director's first fiction feature since Still Life (2006) seems on the surface to be a departure. Inspired by wuxia, or martial arts films, A Touch of Sin—the title is an homage to King Hu's seminal A Touch of Zen (1971)—braids together four narratives in which a bracing act of violence plays a pivotal role. Yet each of these narratives, which unfold in a different province, spanning the northernmost to the southernmost point of China, was drawn from a real-life story. While shocking and perversely compelling, the film's strongest threads use violence not to generate excitement, but rather to expose toxic levels of desperation and madness spilling over in Chinese society.
A Touch of Sin comes out of the gate growling and hungry for blood. Enraged by the corrupt village leaders' decision to sell off the local mine and his own burgeoning sense of impotence, middle-aged coal miner Dahai (Jiang Wu) haphazardly embarks on a campaign to demand justice for he and his fellow working-class villagers, who continue to scrape by while the leaders buy luxury foreign cars and private jets. A second narrative follows taciturn migrant worker Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) as he returns to his hometown and family for New Year celebrations, but his restlessness and dissatisfaction with his limited opportunities soon set him wandering again—armed with a gun.
A third narrative concerns massage parlour receptionist Xiao Yu (Jia's spouse and regular collaborator Zhao Tao). Growing weary of a protracted affair with a married man that seems to be leading her nowhere, her loneliness and frustration explode when she's assaulted by a client. Xiao's story is actually more interesting before violence enters the picture, in part because our heroine's surprising proficiency with weapons feels like the product of some other film, one intended more as florid fantasy. Likewise, a fourth story, which follows a young man (Luo Landshan, making a remarkable screen debut) who goes from job to job, finding little in his life to provide direction or consolation, seems to betray its own psychology when it eventually turns violent.
Throughout A Touch of Sin acts of or allusions to violence line the peripheries: a man viciously beats a horse on a country road, another kneels in a garden and slits a duck's throat, a nasty brawl breaks out in a gambling den, a factory worker wears a T-shirt decorated with an illustration of a grenade. Despite my reservation regarding its second half, I really can't say enough about the elegance with which Jia imparts his central theme throughout A Touch of Sin. His roaming camera and exquisite compositions, his unconditional empathy with every character he invests time in make this an exceptional experience. Flawed, certainly, but this is still easily one of the year's most powerful films.
Fri, Oct 25 – Thu, Oct 31
Metro Cinema at the Garneau