Director Jia Zhangke returns to Cannes this year with A Touch of Sin (2013), a powerful portrait of contemporary China told through the stories of four different provincial characters. Dahai (Jiang Wu) is a disappointed villager, exasperated by the corruption around him and specifically the sale of a local mine to private interests. He grouses about it to anyone who will hear him until his desperation boils over into fury. Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) is an itinerant worker who returns to his wife and home for a short break. The stern-faced type, he sends his wife money but his only true enjoyment comes from firearms.
Elsewhere, Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao) is a receptionist at a massage parlour having an unhappy affair with a rich business man, whilst making up the quartet is Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan, in his first film), a careless young man who travels from job to job trying to get ahead in the world, but who’s always pulled back by a combination of bad luck and his own lack of direction. All of the stories follow a similar trajectory as each character is brutalised by their working conditions and the corruption they’re forced to encounter on a daily basis – before something suddenly snaps. The despair that turns to anger takes places against a panorama of a country whose economic progress is facilitating gross unfairness, organised crime and exploitation.
From the mining village and luxurious brothels to the regimented rigidity of a factory that looks like the infamous real-life iPad facility where workers were killing themselves, Jia’s China is at once seen in a broad geographic and linguistic sweep; regional dialects are heard and commented on. Yet, despite its heterogeneity, the country is shown as under the sway of one process – the grinding introduction of state sponsored capitalism. A co-production with Takeshi Kitano’s film company Office Kitano, A Touch of Sin’s violence has the same black absurdity as the Japanese maestro, even as it bursts out with shocking suddenness.
Jia is as careful as ever to compose his shots with a genuine sense of beauty and, though we see the environmental degradation of the country, there’s still scope to witness the glorious beauty of his nation’s landscape (the acclaimed director has already picked up a major festival prize with the Venice Golden Lion for Still Life in 2006). The broadness of his canvas sometimes stretches and there are a couple of moments where the shifts of tone clang, but given its ambition there’s still a lot to admire in this view of the China that lies behind the myth and propaganda.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.