The films of Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke can be challenging, punishing experiences. His 2000 breakthrough Platform addressed the effect of Western culture on Chinese performing troupe in the 1980s, but anyone looking to that description for a movie that delighted in cross-cultural pop confections were met instead by a static camera and long takes that, if they went anywhere at all, went there slowly. Jia’s critique of a nation in crisis was subtle alright; perhaps too subtle.
Jia’s new film A Touch of Sin is like the work of a different filmmaker. It opens with a triple murder, and the bloodshed doesn’t stop there. The movie has a propulsion that may slow down during its two-hour running time, but it never falters. The director trains his social critique on a new crisis in China: an economic boom that has given rise to entrepreneurs has also given rise to corruption and violence.
In the movie’s first scene, the grizzled miner Dahai (Wu Jiang) stops his car by an overturned apple truck, tossing a stray apple in his hand. A migrant worker, Zhou San (Baoqiang Wang), passes Dahai on a motorcycle but is stopped by three young thugs armed with hammers and knives. Zhou San shoots all three of them. Like Jia’s earlier films, A Touch of Sin can be challenging and even punishing. But this isn’t the patient, slow drama of yesterday’s Jia.
The epic martial arts films of director King Hu inspired Jia’s bravura approach, and the English title of his film pays direct homage to Hu’s classic A Touch of Zen. Hu’s film opens with the archetypal conflict of a mysterious stranger who arrives in town. Jia plays on familiar tropes of the wuxia, or martial arts film, effectively making A Touch of Sin a martial arts film about contemporary China.
The movie is divided into four segments, each based on a true story. Any given segment could have sustained a film on its own, but Jia establishes each story’s crisis only to move on to the next province and a new tragedy.
I could have watched the first segment for two hours. Wu Jiang’s miner is a classic avenger, fighting against corruption for ungrateful villagers. His tale overlaps with that of the hot-tempered migrant worker Zhou San. The film’s second hour staggers its violence at a less breathtaking pace. You’re allowed time to recover, but the relatively calm sequences build a new tension, and, finally, melancholy.
The film’s segments are self-contained but also resonate with each other, and this is one case where the director’s previous subtlety would have been welcome. Jia draws heavy-handed parallels: a farmer beating a horse in the first segment becomes a gangster beating a receptionist in the third segment (which stars the director’s wife, Tao Zhao).
Jia Zhangke paints a picture of a Chinese landscape changing in the face of industry: bleak farmland, an atmosphere choked with factory smoke, a desperate people who resort to violence. The cinematography by Yu Likwai’s captures this volatility with fluid camerawork that builds both grace and tension, and the ensemble cast, made up of both professionals and non-professionals, brings this harrowing canvas to life. A Touch of Sin ends on a weak note, landing its greater theme with a maudlin thud that implicates a nation. But the road it takes to that soft landing is a wild ride, and one of the best films of the year.