"A third-world filmmaker necessarily has to reinvent his own brand new cinema, squeezed by the rule of immediate profit (tougher in cinema than anywhere else), and the risk of a brutal clash with power. These are the directors who affect us deeply. Satyajit Ray in the 50's, Ousmane Sembène in the 60's." Although the late, great French critic Serge Daney wrote those words in 1981 — and China is hardly a Third World country — they apply just as strongly to the work of Jia Zhangke over the past 15 years. In films such as Platform and Unknown Pleasures, Jia has dedicated himself to speaking for the people left behind or damaged by his country's economic boom. But with A Touch of Sin, he's started shouting. It's the angriest film I've seen about contemporary China.
Jia's framing device depicts a Chinese opera performance, but the movie begins with a man shooting three thugs who try to rob him. From there, A Touch of Sin tells four different stories ending in death. Miner Dahai (Jiang Wu), enraged by his village's corruption, turns vigilante. Migrant Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), separated from his wife by distance, becomes enamored of his gun. Receptionist Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao), who works at a sauna that attracts sleazy men, balks at the assumption that she's a sex worker. Factory worker Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) travels across China, going from one menial job to the next.
A Touch of Sin suggests that Jia no longer finds the humanism of his early films a helpful tool for understanding modern China. Instead, he draws on popular — and often violent — cinema from King Hu to Johnnie To. The former gets a shout-out in the film's English-language title, a play on his classic A Touch of Zen; a brief clip of one of the latter's films is shown on a bus. Without glorifying violence, A Touch of Sin portrays it as an understandably cathartic response to oppressive circumstances such as poverty and pervasive corruption. In this, it finds unlikely kinship with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, albeit without that film's hip smart-assery.
A Touch of Sin opens tonight at The Belcourt. Read the full review here.