A Touch of Sin (2013)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 10min

Four vignettes of modern-day China, each inspired by real national news stories, and all culminating in an act of desperate violence – this is the formally bold artistic statement which Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke puts forth with A Touch of Sin, pushing the boundaries of his usual neo-realistic style until they overlap with more traditional crime thriller conventions. China’s soulless, exploitative economy remains the source of much disaffection here, but where many of his previous characters let their disillusionment linger in a state of ambivalent inaction, here it is transformed into a fixated bitterness, with each of his four leads being brought to forceful, parallel conclusions about how to tip the scales of inequality.
 
Frustrated by the wealth gap between its labourers and managers, a worker representative at a coal mine in Shanxi goes on a crusade of justice against his superiors. An estranged husband returns home to his family for Chinese New Year Celebrations in Chongqing with a mysterious accumulation of money, which he has gained through morally reprehensible means. A receptionist at a spa in Hunan grows tired of her affluent clients’ misogynistic attitudes, snapping in a moment of cathartic brutality. And in Guangdong, a factory worker who is constantly being shifted between jobs that place little value on his wellbeing, is eventually driven to an act of self-destruction.

No doubt Jia’s bloodiest film to date, edging neorealism over into crime thriller conventions.

Jia’s formal exercise in comparing these four diverse, self-contained tableaus makes for perhaps his most confrontational attack yet on China’s move towards a dehumanising, capitalistic economy. Still Life implied violence in the deconstruction and demolishment of towering structures, but this is the first time he has chosen to represent this cultural decline so viscerally, through the depiction of actual bodily harm. Whether it is a premediated string of murders or a spur-of-the-moment action, each perpetrator in A Touch of Sin is driven by an overwhelming sense of nihilism, realising they are left with no options except that which they would have never considered before.

Jia’s use of architecture is always notable, particular here as he harkens back to more traditional, historical structures and then taints them with scenes of violence.

Though Jia’s use of architecture as character is evident, the sheer variety of geographical locations prevents A Touch of Sin from developing a consistent aesthetic. An ancient temple sets a holy backdrop to a callous assassination, smoke stacks and factories appear in a montage evoking Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, and the bright red Wushan Yangtze River Bridge from Still Life arches over a canal like a welcoming entrance, but should Jia have followed through on any of these stylistic choices a little more, he might have been able to find greater form in the connection between each vignette.

Some nice Ozu-style pillow shots are used here, though may have been more impactful if it was built into the structure throughout.
Returning to this location from Still Life, rightfully one of Jia’s favourite pieces of scenery that he always knows how to use to great effect.

The Roberto Rossellini influence that Jia exhibited in his earlier films with his use of dilapidated buildings does make a return here, but there is an even more notable narrative inspiration from the Italian neorealist’s 1948 film Germany Year Zero. In the final vignette which follows the alienated factory worker, Xiaohui, the young man steadily accumulates one misfortune after another, and this persistent bleakness builds towards his devastating, climactic suicide. While every other act of violence implies an external connection between the aggressor and their victims, Xiaohui’s isolation keeps his destructive fury contained to his own mind and body, capping off A Touch of Sin not with a ferocious attack on authority, but rather a moving plea for empathy

A Touch of Sin is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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