A Touch of Sin explores random acts of violence

Malcolm Fraser reviews Jian Zhangke’s latest, the intimate and epic A Touch of Sin.

Zhao Tao in A Touch of Sin

Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin premiered here at FNC in the fall. A tragic tale somehow both intimate and epic, it’s definitely one of the best films in the strong slate of recent releases.

posterThe film is comprised of four stories. In the first one, Wu Jiang plays Dahai, a rebellious outsider in a mining town who tries to stir up outrage about local corruption in his community — embodied by a slick businessman with ties to local politicians, who seems to be able to buy his way around the rules. When Dahai’s efforts are met with widespread indifference, and an ass-whupping by the businessman’s henchmen, he decides to take matters into his own hands with violent results.

The subsequent stories follow a petty criminal (Wang Baoqiang) visiting his hometown, a massage parlour receptionist (the director’s wife and longtime collaborator Zhao Tao) who finds herself on the run after she violently rebuffs a creepy client and a teenage boy (Luo Lanshan) who takes a job at a luxury hotel in order to pay off debts, and falls in love with a hostess (aka prostitute) who also works at the hotel. The stories and characters occasionally overlap (though not in the laboured, overly clever manner that was all the rage a few years ago), but are mainly connected through recurring themes.

touch2They’re all individuals up against an uncaring system, who find they can only respond with an outburst of violence. It’s a pretty standard theme in American film, but the setting in China gives it extra poignancy. The whole film is like a scream of rage at a society in which conformity and the primacy of the (supposed) common good over individual rights are officially upheld as virtues. And its plot points are inseparable from hot-button topics in the Chinese news — corruption, economic inequality, sexual exploitation, suicide, protest, people generally inconvenient to authorities. Not surprisingly, A Touch of Sin has yet to be cleared by censors for release in its own native land.

All that aside, though, it’s also a highly cinematic film, full of imagery that stays with you long after the movie is done. Some of the sequences in the fourth segment, with a line of hotel hostesses in garish outfits doing synchronized marches through thematically decorated rooms, are like some kind of surreal cracked-out Busby Berkeley spectacle. But for some reason, the image that stays with me the most is a brief shot of the back of a truck as it slowly sways around a corner on a mountain road. I can’t really say why. It’s just a strangely poetic moment in a film full of them. ■

A Touch of Sin opens today


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