On the orient excess
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.