Directed by: Zhangke Jia
Starring: Wu Jiang, Lanshan Luo, Li Meng, Baoqiang Wang
At what point does the cost of ever rising GDP outweigh the benefits? If Jia Zhangke doesn’t set out where the line lies, it’s clear from A Touch of Sin that it’s been crossed. Traversing the country in four different stories, Zhangke sets out to expose the corruption and moral bankruptcy that he sees at the heart of modern China. The result is a dark and thought provoking shock to the system.
How do you express the ills of a nation within the running time of one film though? Zhangke’s answer is a four story anthology ranging across the vast expanse of the country. There’s Dahai (Wu Jiang) and his motorcycle, a man frustrated by the corruption of his bosses who finally snaps in an unjustifiable way for justifiable reasons. Next comes Zhou San (Baoqiang Wang), a young drifter obsessed with the excitement of violence who frequently leaves his wife and child to venture across the country. Violence is the watchword lurching forth regularly to soak the story, and sometimes the characters, in never ending supplies of blood.
This doesn’t change as Zhangke moves through his tales of disenchantment. Xiao Yu (Tao Zhao), a receptionist in a sex sauna who is also stuck in an affair with a married man is forced into drastic and very final action before the journey closes on Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo), a frustrated young man who rolls through a series of mind numbing and occasionally sleazy jobs searching desperately for even a hint of meaning.
Despite the four story structure, this is no Babel style aren’t we all connected rubbish. A Touch of Sin avoids tying itself in knots attempting to weave the characters together. Instead, each segment focusses on Zhangke’s bigger themes painting layer after layer of the same picture to add a painful depth to the stark violent ruptures in the social fabric of his homeland.
From the start it’s abundantly clear that larger issues are at stake. The camera’s critical eye remains locked onto the corruption that afflicts businesses and individuals and the perils created by a growth strategy focussed exclusively on as much wealth creation as possible without the appropriate checks. The antagonists, from the thieving boss to the aggressive customer at Xiao Yu’s sauna, flaunt money as if it were a magic pass to any reward no matter the social cost. That these wads of cash seem to be located in the hands of a very small minority is also clear.
Whether you’re a frustrated campaigner for justice, a woman facing the pawing of misogynist animals or a dejected employee unable to find a job that does anything other than crush spirits, the end result is the same. It’s a sudden burst of searing violence, revenge sprayed across the canvass in vivid red. Faces explode in a cloud of matter while clothing is drowned in dark crimson.
The violence is shot through with an energy that reverberates increasingly loudly once the initial shell-shock wears off. After a while though, a certain degree of monotony creeps in. Violence becomes the coda to each story, telegraphed well ahead of time. The crime genre strait jacket allows Zhangke to air his grievances in a crisp and communicable pattern but unstinting adherence limits the scope to really explore each issue.
A Touch of Sin also suffers from common anthology problems. The repeated breaks disrupt narrative and thematic flow, forcing abrupt reboots with each set of characters. Zhangke judges the length of content effectively in each instance but the restarts prevent any individual segment from truly building up a head of steam.
Still, rarely have social ills been so brutally exposed for all the world to see. A Touch of Sin holds a mirror up to China and the reflection is not a pretty one. The shiny new cities may gleam in the smoggy sunlight but under the surface a reckoning is due. Not everything glitters in (nominally) Communist China.