“A Touch of Sin”: Tales of blood and money in the new China

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“A Touch of Sin” has its Madison premiere for FREE on Friday, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m. at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Not rated, 2:05, three and a half stars out of four.

China is changing and the films of Jia Zhang Ke are changing with them. Jia’s previous films (“The World,” “Still Life”) gazed at ordinary Chinese citizens adrift in a country that was changing around them, uncertain if there was a place for them in it.

In “A Touch of Sin,” China has definitely changed into a more violent, predatory place, where capitalism reigns supreme and the old ways get little more than lip service. And the Chinese have changed with it.

Those used to Jia’s gently sad, documentary-style films will be taken aback at “A Touch of Sin,” which has a coiled fury at the new China that expresses itself in bursts of extreme violence and moments of caustic wit. The movie (really an anthology of four loosely-tied short films) opens with a man riding his motorbike on the highway when he’s accosted by a trio of hatchet-wielding thieves. The rider calmly pulls out a handgun and shoots two of them, then, holding the gun between his teeth, chases down the remaining thief and kills him too.

In a way, each of the four stories plays off a violent movie trope familiar to Chinese audiences. The first story could be a classic one-man-against-the-system Western, as an angry miner, Dahai (Jiang Wu) in a military overcoat looks into the corruption in his mining town, where village officials have sold off the town’s mining rights to a wealthy businessman, enriching themselves and cutting out the townspeople from the profits.

Seeking justice, Dahai is rebuffed, laughed at, even beaten when he won’t stop asking questions, and finally takes matters into his own hands with a shotgun wrapped in a tiger flag. But the violence isn’t cathartic, but awful, as Jia refuses to use quick cuts or music, anything to distract us from the reality that this is senseless slaughter.

The second film could almost be a riff on a Hong Kong action film, as we follow that rider back home, where we discover he’s a career thief with an uneasy relationship with his family. With gun in hand, we see him plan an audacious robbery — which could almost be considered thrilling, until we see who the target of the robbery is.

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The best of the four films comes next, following a massage parlor receptionist (Tao Zhao) who sees her married boyfriend off at the train station. He gives her a fruit knife that security won’t allow him to take on the train, a knife that comes into play later, when an abusive client mistakes her for one of the massage girls and won’t take no for an answer. The title of Jia’s movie is a play on a classic martial arts film, “A Touch of Zen,” and the carnage ends with the woman striking the pose of a warrior hero. For a brief, bloody moment, she is more than just a cog in a massive capitalist machine.

The last segment feels the most like a Jia film, as we follow a sweet-faced factory worker as he goes from one humiliating job to the next, his face slowly hardening as he realizes how limited his options are. “Welcome to a Fortune 500 company,” his shift supervisor tells him, without a trace of irony.

Woven together, the four stories (all taken from actual news events) become a sorrowful but pointed critique at the China that Jia sees forming, ruthless and cold, most of its citizens treated no better than pack animals. Jia has always been one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers, documenting how global forces affect the forgotten many at the bottom. The new, sharpened sense of outrage he brings to “A Touch of Sin” makes for one of his best films.

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