An angry meditation on national identity, representation and the moral and personal consequences of the society’s transformative shift from Maoism to an unbridled capitalism, A Touch of Sin, the new work by China’s greatest contemporary director, Jia Zhang-ke, is the director's most impressive achievement since Still Life (2006) won the top prize at Venice.
It's suffused with a blistering, tragic intensity and palpable anger illustrating the moral rot and social despair resulting from the country’s willful and energetic Randian obedience to new wealth. It’s an annihilating, gut-wrenching work that offers little escape or solace. Not since Unknown Pleasures has Jia made a film so immediate.
Jia has collected four stories, each dealing with death and personal tumult, and drawn from recent fact-based incidents in China, to address the extreme social stratification, inequality and corruption caught in the country’s daily rituals and vast social fabric at once toxic and constant.
From the soul-crushing marginalization of the poor to the perverse and appalling greed, cynicism and avarice of the country’s new social elite, the historical analog is the West in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Here it is accelerated though also strangely defamiliar, numbing in its exactness and crippling in its repercussions.
The ideas and concerns are familiar from the director’s previous work (Platform, The World), but the violent sense of loss and interruption contributes to a grave and wounding tone. Jia intertwines all manner of influences, of East and West (the movie’s English title is a play on King Hu’s iconic A Touch of Zen), cinema and literature grafted to new forms and idioms, capturing the nihilistic underpinnings of graphic novels and the open, anti-government impulses endemic to the Internet.
The extraordinary beginning opens like a Chinese Once Upon a Time in the West and by its chilling and brittle conclusion the movie feels like Crime and Punishment.
In the opening, set in the province of Shanxi, where Jia was born, a ruffian and agitate miner (Jiang Wu), dismissed by most of the community as a village idiot, takes extreme action in his violent protest of the graft, corruption and self-dealing of the business and social leaders.
It's as if Jia frames the narratives of Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280 and The Killer Inside Me to a Chinese vernacular, a man renouncing his own private failure and impotence to strike down those he holds responsible for his pronounced failure and dissatisfaction.
In Chongqing, a southwestern city on the Yangtze river, an enigmatic young man (Wang Baoqiang), the same one seen at the beginning administering his own brand of frontier justice, a thief and killer, reverses his own social marginalization through the transgressive power and authority conferred on him with a handgun. The first episode is annihilating and bleak. Here Jia uses blank, open spaces to such sinister and even kinetic effect, the violence turns enervating and appalling.
In the third piece, unfolding in Hubei, in central China, a receptionist (Zhao Tao), already flouting traditional values by carrying an illicit affair with a married man, strikes back at a man who arrogantly believes his wealth entitles him to unfettered sexual satisfaction. In the final chapter, a young man (Luo Lanshan), living on the southern coast and desperate for his own brand of social mobility, lights out from his provincial village but tragically finds just a continuation of his thwarted and circumscribed life.
This is not Intolerance; the stories never exactly interweave, but they definitely exist in relation to one another and Jia's fluid arrangement of the different parts is bracing and typically inventive. Taken separately, the individual chapters seemingly lack depth; strung together, the work carries a chilling cumulative impact (it must be said the third episode is the weakest and most problematic).
The great Yu Lik-wai, Jia’s regular cinematographer, working in in the unusual format ratio of 1:2.4, weaves together one dazzling, immersive image after another, to the point they collate and dance in the imagination. The use of color, especially red in the first chapter, is expressive and suggestive, binding shape, action and movement to a corrosive arabesque.
Jia's last couple of projects have oscillated between forms and modes of expression, hybrid works that daringly if sometimes too elliptically shifted between fiction and nonfiction technique and stylistic approaches. The results were often beautiful but distant and opaque. Now you feel his engagement to the material. (Jia appears as an actor in the last chapter.)
This is action-painting cinema in the best sense, thrilling, sad and terrifying.