By Kathy Dimaya
WSN’s coverage of the New York Film Festival continues this year with reviews of some of the festival’s hottest films. This is the first entry in a series of reviews. To read more coverage of the festival’s 51st edition, click here.
Violent, graphic, and deeply disturbing, “A Touch of Sin” is a striking piece of cinematic literature, painting an unexplored version of the modern Orient to the world. Director and screenwriter Jia Zhangke exposes a buried identity of China, one of murderous desperation and hopelessness.
Charting four stories, each with their own disastrous end, the movie centers around separate individuals with homicidal or suicidal tendencies — the angry villager who kills with pleasure to mitigate the injustice that surrounds him; the absentee father who escapes perpetual boredom through the use of his pistol; the dishonored mistress who desperately resists a precarious sauna client; and the young worker who evades responsibility and rejection, only to be the catalyst to his own end.
Each character presents a hugely different perspective on modern China, and “A Touch of Sin” does not hesitate to shock with its blatant exhibition of violence, vividly visualizing the reality of death and destruction in the country today. The scenes of murder are certainly not for those are squeamish.
The first story is the most striking in the film. It features Dahai, a miner who endures the injustice of a corrupt official. After unsuccessfully soliciting help from people around him, he resorts to the worst kind of vigilantism — execution.
The other stories do not evoke the same frightening response, but they are still relevant and necessary to understand. Dahai’s story is followed by the story of a ruthless mugger who seldom visits his family in favor of a life of excitement. Superficially, it will be a foreign tale for most, but the director paints the thief’s life so deftly and so honestly that it becomes very real. The man has no will to live except for the thrill of power. In his mundane life, he tends to a decrepit mother, a dull wife, and a child who requires constant care. Yet with his gun, he has the capability of ending someone’s life, of deciding someone else’s fate. That power has already consumed him; in every other aspect of his existence, he is nobody, his judgment is insignificant.
The third story is simply about a mistress who forces an ultimatum on her lover: leave his wife or leave her. She encounters a violent client, and she is forced to defend herself with a fruit knife in her bag.
Lastly, the fourth story is somewhat unlike the others in that the protagonist is choosing whether or not to end his own life. Overcome by his prostitute lover’s rejection of him and the banality of his factory worker profession, he believes he has nothing left to live for.
Zhangke’s cinematic style is both simple and complex. Rather than doing a “Babel”-style narrative, in which the four stories intersect constantly, Zhangke thankfully keeps the narratives separate (for the most part). Its simplicity lies in the straightforward presentation of characters and storyline, but its complexity is driven by well-researched locations and elaborate manipulation of setting, lighting, and placement of actors in a scene. The cinematography is also done beautifully, with poetic, silent moments that reveal the film’s best qualities.
The duality of the film as a love letter to — and a chastisement of — China, its people, and its landscape is also very evident. On the one hand, the director criticizes the abundance of violence in China — the primary theme of the film. But one cannot help but notice the delicacy in which Zhangke presents his homeland. The areas in which the violent crimes take place are presented as chaotic, but even after the murders and the suicide, the locations still appear charming and redeemable. The tenderness in which Zhangke handles the portrayal of the locations ensure that the viewer does not mistake the place itself as being something evil, but rather in them, the society and the human beings.
“A Touch of Sin” is interrupted at brief moments by additions of awkward comedy that often lessen the film’s blow. That aside, the film gives a fresh perspective on the reality of China’s growing society and economy. It exhibits imagery unfamiliar to a western audience, and it gives even more to think about for eastern audiences. It delivers as the director intended it to: to raise ignored questions about the correlation between socioeconomic stature and violence in modern China.
Kathy Dimaya is a contributing writer. Email her at email@example.com.