Ooh-ed and aah-ed over, but largely in more arcane cinephile circles, Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke (Venice winner “Still Life,” Cannes 2012 doc ”I Wish I Knew,” “The World”) has made a name for himself to date with detailed, glacially paced, social realist films, often in the documentary tradition, set against a backdrop of a modern-day China that we rarely see: the China of disenfranchisement, displacement and social unease which comprises the flip side of the globalisation and economic boom times that make more headlines abroad. It provides fascinating, glimpse-behind-the-curtain subject matter, and Jia is nothing if not authentic, but his measured, long-take style can try the patience. If fact, the reason that we had this film as one to watch out for on our Cannes Anticipated list was because we’d heard that for the first time, Jia had incorporated elements of genre into his social critique. Some of us at The Playlist have always believed that just a spoonful of genre can help the dense social commentary go down – so how does Zhang-ke’s latest fare?
With three graphic gun deaths and an explosion before the director’s name appears in the opening credits, “A Touch of Sin” does indeed display the promised genre touches — but ‘incorporate’ may be the wrong word. In fact what’s perhaps surprising is that the genre most specifically borrowed from is the kind of bloody splatter/revenge movie perhaps more in the tradition of certain Japan or Hong Kong-based directors. These sudden bursts of gory, graphic violence sit oddly alongside the ultra-restrained nature of Jia’s sensibility, giving the film an odd rhythm that never really synthesizes into a coherent whole. These problems are then exacerbated by the film’s structure: four only loosely connected stories (where a connection exists at all), from separate parts of China, based on stories the director culled from the headlines. So we essentially get the same arc over and over again: marginalised person in an untenable situation gives in to the secret violence that Jia seems to be suggesting we all may hide within ourselves, and ends up doing bloody harm to someone, or to many, or to themselves.
Before we had grown accustomed to (and wary of) the inevitable downward trajectory of each story, however, in the very first segment, the film was impressive in its peculiarity, delivering a character study of a troublemaking mine employee, Dahai (Jiang Wu), who tries to raise the village to revolt against both the village chief and the jet plane-owning boss of the mining company. His efforts are alternately poignant and ridiculous, and the portrayal of Dahai as an ambiguous character from the start — is he a crusader for justice, or merely a fool and a paranoid loser? — gives his eventual breakdown an added shock value. Added, that is, to the shock of the shotgun blasts that spatter walls and windows and Dahai himself with gore. It’s a kind of small-town-Chinese “Falling Down,” and probably the most successful chapter for it.
Loosely linked by the opening prologue to Dahai’s story, the next segment is probably the least satisfactory, featuring essentially a gun-toting psychopath (Wang Baoqing) who racks up the most impressive body count of the film with sporadic murders, some of people who just get in his way, and some for theft purposes. Then we get a more engaging story of a young woman (Li Meng) involved in a long-term affair who also works as a receptionist in a massage parlor/brothel. An insistent john attempts to rape her, first humiliating her by slapping her face with a wad of money over and over and over again in an excruciatingly neverending sequence. So it’s quite a relief when she stabs him to death and wanders out into the night. And finally, we get the story of a young aimless man (Luo Lanshan) coming to a new town and picking up casual jobs, first as a waiter in a sex club (one act surreally features girls in skimpy versions of the Chinese Army uniform, marching around and saluting in time), where he meets a girl and has a few romantic encounters, before going back to factory work and the dismal shared quarters in the vast hivelike adjacent flats that it provides.
The people of Jia’s film are mysterious, their reactions and motivations, outside of that first segment in which we get the best-drawn and therefore most anomalous character, are all but unknowable. How and why the forces of societal and personal exclusion act to unmoor them from the basic rules and morals of humankind, remains largely unexplained — in almost all cases their ordinariness, their everyman status is emphasized as they go about the daily grind on the lower rungs of an increasingly economically polarized Chinese society. It could be anyone, the film rather gloomily suggests. It could be you. When life is this cheap, and killings can go largely without consequence as the victims are simply swallowed up in the massively populated scheme of things, who’s to say who will and won’t eventually become, as is a repeated motif throughout the film, “an animal”?
Beyond that profoundly depressing point, there’s not an awful lot else here, aside from Jia’s trademark arresting photography, which often seems to make the point the whole film is laboring to convey in a single image or two. There’s both poetry and irony in the vast shots of half-destroyed building sites, dusty dead-end villages, scrappy countryside and teeming street scenes alike, evoking the vastness and the unfeeling quality of China’s uncaring geography, perhaps it renders more understandable just how people can become so isolated in a country of a 1.3 billion souls. But if the inscrutability of the main protagonists starts off as an intriguing challenge, by the end of the film’s 2 1/4 hour run time, it has become a frustrating effort, that yields little reward. Ultimately “A Touch of Sin” a rather misshapen attempt to add drama and narrative intrigue to Jia’s stylistic repertoire, and the joins show too obviously for the result to be truly satisfying to his diehard fans, or to potential new recruits. [C]