Jia Zhangke’s close attention to the subjective and socioeconomic aspects of architecture, geography, and disappearances of spaces both natural and man-made as a way to structure and elaborate his narratives in an ever transforming China finds its most chilling depiction thus far in his oeuvre with A Touch of Sin. A Touch of Sin is Jia’s stab at more commercial filmmaking. Once again exploring the many varieties of social, political and economic oppression at home, Jia crams together four very uneven stories of four troubled individuals, all climaxing in horrific acts of violence that send the film swerving into Grand Guignol territory.
Not that Jia has compromised his usual wide-ranging vision one bit. His critique of power and class inequalities in modern Chinese society is pretty obvious, but A Touch of Sin goes even deeper with its cynicism, empathizing with his working-class victims/killers but also fascinated in a social-scientist way with the limits of human empathy. After 24 City and I Wish I Knew, I had absolutely no idea as to where he could possibly push his increasingly direct and provocative mix of documentary and fiction. It turns out, based on A Touch of Sin, that he decided not only to go back to straight fiction filmmaking, but to do so with a bloody, angry vengeance. A Touch of Sin is very much in keeping with the generally pessimistic worldview of Jia’s earlier works. One doesn’t walk away from his accomplished, gorgeous-looking films with a sense of hope for China’s bright future.
Religion isn’t too far from Jia’s mind as well, most notably in its final vignette, in which Xiao Hui falls for a female co-worker with strong Buddhist convictions. “I need to do a lot of good deeds to make it in the next life,” she says. Whether the acts of violent revenge in A Touch of Sin constitute the “good deeds” of which she speaks is something Jia leaves disquietingly open as the strains of live Chinese opera—one in which a woman regains her freedom after having been framed for murder—closes the picture. The director defines no grand design or no pointers as to any possible solutions. The film is mainly concerned with diagnosing the disease rather than offering any cures. Shot in grey shades, featuring some heightened performances, it remains, however, horribly engaging from its grim beginning to its utterly hopeless ending.
The violence continues, with gunshots and stabbings. Jia said the movie is an attempt to understand that instinct. Wow, I’m exhausted. Truly. A Touch of Sin is a sobering experience. If anything, it’s upsetting how much Jia’s dark tale of murder, retribution and suicide echoes similar issues within America’s contentious class system. Of all the movies to make with the backing of the Chinese government, he chose this one. One of the best films shown at this years Cannes. Recommended.