Starring: Wu Jiang, Tao Zhao, Lanshan Luo
Director: Zhangke Jia
China is a big country, and it takes a big film to give you anything like a sense of the state of that nation. But that’s what A Touch of Sin does. Zhangke Jia’s movie consists of four segments about four characters, from different regions and strata of society, linked by chance encounters. In each case, the protagonist has enough of the status quo and resorts to violence.
In the first segment, a malcontent (Wu Jiang) in a remote mining town complains about corrupt financial dealings and, when he’s beaten up for his trouble, takes justice into his own hands with the aid of his trusty shotgun. The second concerns a man (Baoqiang Wang) who is so bored by life in a small farming village that he commits violent robberies as much for the thrill as for the money. In the third, a middle class woman (Tao Zhao) has an affair with a married man, only to find the wife employing gangster tactics to get back at her. The fourth and last is about a boy (Lanshan Luo) who gets a job in a swanky nightclub catering to wealthy businessmen and makes the mistake of falling in love with one of the hospitality girls.
It’s a quartet of tales that builds up to a devastating picture, while also demonstrating the director’s skill and range. The first segment has a gritty, spaghetti western, revenge thriller feel. The mining town is like the Wild West, with a Mr Big who flies in from time to time in a private jet and is treated like a film star by the pathetically demoralized workers. You almost feel like your’e watching an unofficial Asian remake of Hobo With a Shotgun as the hero sets about settling scores, winning extra marks from the audience when he blasts a guy who’s whipping a horse. It all plays out against the crumbling, mocking remnants of the Imperial and Communist eras.
The more gleamingly affluent side of modern China forms a backdrop to the later segments – the neon of the sauna where the woman in the third tale works, and the nightclub of the fourth tale, which is an extravagantly artificial world, all chrome and bling and highly polished floors, with chorines who dress in abbreviated versions of military uniforms and traditional garb. Here, the imagery has a luxeness, a sensuous rhythm and sense of yearning, that’s reminiscent of Kar Wai Wong’s In the Mood for Love.
Visually, A Touch of Sin is a film of extremes. It’s not so much about the contrasts though, as the idea that whatever sector of society you’re in, you’re likely to run up against the same crushing realities. The middle classes might have smartphones and designer clothes, but otherwise they’re not much better off than the miners. The kids in the fourth tale dress trendily and seem very westernized, playing with iPads, posting comments on the internet, but the same venal, aggressively greedy culture is waiting to grind down all of them alike.
Along the way, the film offers some surprising insights – that China has an AIDS problem, for instance – but even when the points it makes are the ones you would expect, its textures are constantly exciting and memorable. It won’t make you want to book a holiday to China, but it will make you feel as though you’ve been there and taken a long, hard look at its glories and terrors.