It feels like it’s been a long road for me towards appreciating director Jia Zhangke’s films properly since his first film Xiao Wu (1997), but Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin) was up there at the top of my year’s favourite films of last year. This new one also takes a multi-part approach to storytelling, but rather than four separate (if interwoven) stories, here it’s three focusing on the same characters but over time (1999, 2014 and 2025). It’s very easy to recount the key ideas which Jia is going for here and make them seem banal — I think we’ve all become familiar now with films that look at technology and social media as symptomatic of a modern social disconnection that we have from one another as people. With respect to China, there’s also a link made here with westernisation and capitalism, which makes the choice of the song with which the film opens and closes (“Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, accompanied by a delightful dance sequence) seem somewhat inevitable. And yet none of this is really quite as obvious while the film is playing: it’s instead a gentle and at times subtly harrowing story of a woman growing up in provincial China (Zhao Tao), the man she marries (Yi Zhang) whose life is dedicated to wealth-creation (leading him first to Shanghai and then Australia), and their son (Daole, or “Dollar”, played by Zijian Dong), who grows up with his father after the parents split, and finally has troubling reconnecting with his mother. Each of the three time periods is presented in a different aspect ratio, which lends further artfulness to the presentation. The long final stretch set in the future is probably the most challenging (not least because the characters all speak in English, Daole having lost the ability to speak his native tongue, and because Yi Zhang’s old-age look is so transparently unconvincing), but it’s also the most fascinating section, whereas the 1999 sequence has a sort of bright sheen of hopefulness (and even, dare I say it, a hint of televisual melodrama). It’s a strong work, if not my favourite of Jia’s recent output.
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 賈樟柯; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力为; Starring Zhao Tao 赵涛, Yi Zhang 张译, Zijian Dong 董子健, Sylvia Chang 張艾嘉; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Thursday 8 October 2015.