Film Review: A Touch Of Sin

Jia Zhangke’s epic tragedy uses four true stories of rage and revenge as the jumping-off point for an exhilarating exposé of a dehumanized modern China imploding with fury.

The closest you’ll come to a happy person in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is the grim-faced loner Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang). Unfortunately, he’s probably a psychopath. The film’s three other major characters are all eventually thrust into a type of insanity, but Zhou is the only one who seems to have both already crossed over and be content with it. 

Jia begins his sprawling tragicomedy with Zhou, his simplest and most troubling character. A slight figure in a Chicago Bulls cap, Zhou is driving his scooter in a remote area when he’s stopped by three axe-wielding men demanding money. Zhou pulls a handgun and cuts them down as mathematically as Charles Bronson did at the start of Once Upon a Time in the West. Then he drives on.

After this jarring opening, already jangled by the soundtrack’s wailing traditional opera, Jia starts in with his quartet of tales based on news stories about Chinese people driven to the edge. The first and simplest is about a miner, Dahai (Jiang Wu), who pesters everyone about how the local boss sold off the mine and got rich while never distributing the promised largesse. Jiang’s rumbling antic energy gives his rants a comic glint that makes the story deceptively lighthearted—right until one of the boss’ flunkies savagely beats him. That’s when Dahai digs the shotgun out of his closet. His revenge is systematic and shocking; it’s like a punch to the gut that keeps coming.

In each of the following stories, Jia cracks their framing with violence at blindsiding moments. The receptionist at the sauna (Zhao Tao) who is having an affair with a married man is first attacked by his family and then by a pair of oafish clients; she wants revenge. A young man (first-timer Luo Lanshan) drifts from job to job as though in a dream; the only thing that snaps him back to reality is the sight of blood. Zhou returns to his village after a mysterious absence to find that his family gives him no pleasure; only gunfire will do the trick. 

Jia links his stories with just the thinnest strands of coincidence. Otherwise, these are standalone tales that together create a bloody and despairing portrait of powerlessness. The vividly depicted China of this film is a cold, mercantile place where people are a commodity. The glassy modernity of skyscrapers and overpasses is continually juxtaposed with reminders of the citizenry’s earthier reality of grinding jobs and corruption. Jia shoots dreamy tableaux of large groups watching traveling actors performing opera or a brigade of young women dancing a nightclub routine in Red Army gear. He sprinkles the film with shots of animals in captivity, being mistreated or shipped off for slaughter.

Although Jia comes to the film with a nonfiction filmmaker’s eye for texture and background, he bursts occasionally into pulpier, more stylized territory. After one character goes on a knife-wielding rampage, her expressions and movements suddenly take on the choreographed detail of an avenging warrior from classic wuxia like A Touch of Zen (which Jia nods to throughout). He’s a documentarian with an ironist’s eye for social inequality, a modern-day Balzac with a double-dose of Buñuel and Tarantino.

With this much going on, A Touch of Sin comes close to not quite cohering. Starting things off with an entertaining pro like Jiang makes good sense, but the film can’t help but suffer sometimes from the downbeat mood shifts that follow. Even so, Jia’s film remains a troubling, exhilarating epic of pugnacious surreality that’s filled with jabbing questions and no simple answers.