On the ori­ent ex­cess

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM - TARA BRADY

A TOUCH OF SIN ★★★★ Di­rected by Jia Zhangke. Star­ring Zhao Tao, Jiang Wu, Wang Bao­qiang, Luo Lan­shan Club, IFI,

Dublin, 133 min

In an at­tempt to help us make sense of his vast, pes­simistic study of con­tem­po­rary China, Jia Zhangke, di­rec­tor of the ac­claimed Still Life, has de­scribed the port­man­teau piece as a con­tem­po­rary wuxia.

There are cer­tainly shades of the mar­tial arts epic about A Touch of Sin. Sev­eral of the char­ac­ters, driven to de­spair by greed and cor­rup­tion, grab weapons and wreak havoc on their var­ied op­pres­sors. But this is very much a film about late cap­i­tal­ism and its vic­tims. Rainer Werner Fass­binder would have en­joyed the later scenes that re-imag­ine the new China as a more that usu­ally vul­gar brothel. It vi­brates with anger at the hol­low­ness of the new com­pro­mises. The ou­trage is ex­cit­ing. The dis­gust is in­vig­o­rat­ing. The drive is ab­sorb­ing.

The first of four tales (each based on real events) con­cerns a for­mer coal miner en­raged at the sale of the mine to a rob­ber baron who re­fuses to pay the promised div­i­dends. The sec­ond fol­lows a dan­ger­ous in­di­vid­ual who, re­turn­ing home for New Year on his mo­tor­bike, of­fers ev­i­dence that, for all the vast­ness of its cities, parts of China still play by the rules of the Wild West. The most touch­ing se­quence has to do with a young woman, re­cep­tion­ist at a sauna, who, stressed by an un­sat­is­fac­tory re­la­tion­ship, re­acts vi­o­lently to the un­wanted ad­vances of a cus­tomer. The fi­nal sec­tion takes us fur­ther into de­spair.

A Touch of Sin has some­thing of a split per­son­al­ity. Hitherto known for qui­eter ex­am­i­na­tion of the Chi­nese ex­pe­ri­ence, he han­dles the char­ac­ters’ ini­tial trau­mas with a nat­u­ral­is­tic ease. By way of con­trast, the ex­plo­sions of vi­o­lence have a mad en­ergy that seems to spring from a dif­fer­ent school of film-mak­ing. There is a sense that the Jia is re­luc­tant to give into the anger that the ru­ined cit­i­zens feel. The blood-let­tings are, thus, grudg­ing, un­com­fort­able and forced.

It all adds up to a gru­elling, lengthy, but con­sis­tently worth­while, ex­per­i­ment in ex­treme cin­ema. First class stuff.

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