Jia Zhangke has proven himself over the last two decades to be one of China’s most intriguing directors, beginning with the microbudget, underground Xiao Wu (1997). He may have graduated to ‘official approval’ for his filmmaking, but his vision of modern China is still unsettling enough that this latest film has had trouble in being certificated for its local market. That might be attributed to the more forceful exegesis — it takes its form from four interwoven stories which are bookended by bloody acts of brutal violence — but really it’s more likely to be related to the way this violence is contextualised within contemporary society. If it’s not specifically a Chinese malaise that causes this violence, locating it there and basing it on real events, torn as it were from the headlines (or rather, the social media), can’t have been helpful. That said, this isn’t a documentary or even a docudrama: it has a very cinematic sweep, with much of its violence more indebted to traditional cinematic forms (wuxia for example, as hinted by the title’s evocation of A Touch of Zen) than to real life. It’s also simply beautiful to look at.
There’s a category of films — arthouse films, let’s be fair — where my initial fairly positive reaction on watching it in the cinema is quickly eclipsed by the way it builds in my mind afterwards. A Touch of Sin is a strong example of this tendency. I certainly liked and admired it when I saw it, but the more I think about it, the more I think this is one of the great films of the past year. It’s a film that doesn’t just deploy bloody violence, it’s a film that’s about that violence, about the way that violent responses are sometimes desired, sometimes forced on us, sometimes the only perceptible way forward.
The four stories concern first an embittered villager (Jiang Wu) whose complaints about official corruption are ignored and then met with violent retribution; a sadistic itinerant worker and father (Wang Baoqiang) who seems to enjoy killing people when given the chance and so makes chances for himself by committing a street robbery; a young man (Luo Lanshan) who is rebuffed in love and left unprotected by his workplace when an accident happens; and finally a young woman (Zhao Tao) whose adulterous liaison with another man is discovered by that man’s wife, and who then is mistaken for a prostitute.
This simple recounting of the four characters’ stories doesn’t really convey the way that societal pressures exert themselves, though. It’s a thoroughgoing critique of the helplessness felt in the face of incomprehensible bureaucratic restrictions, the mediated allure of vigilantism, the dangers of inadequate worker protections in sweatshop environments, and the tolls of commodified sexuality. There’s no preachiness though, or moments of explanation; everything is conveyed through the narrative, and it’s a tour de force of really engaged political filmmaking.
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力为; Starring Jiang Wu 姜武, Zhao Tao 赵涛, Wang Baoqiang 王宝强, Luo Lanshan 罗蓝山; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Monday 2 June 2014.