Film Review: ‘A Touch of Sin’

A searing shot to the gut at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (what a shame it’s taken this long to make it to UK shores), Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s confrontational new feature, A Touch of Sin (2013), thematically intertwines four engrossing narratives into one stark and unmissable whole. It’s been some time since a drama has tackled the moral complexities of revenge quite so brutally – and so well – with each character offering a different perspective on China’s crippling corruption and ethical decay that’s depressingly common, yet rarely reported. Jia is no stranger to tales of the marginalised, but A Touch of Sin also ushers in a sense of anger and injustice rarely seen in Eastern genre cinema.

Loosely basing his four narratives on real events either reported or retrospectively highlighted by Chinese social media website Weibo, Jia’s latest begins with Shanxi malcontent Dahai (Jiang Wu), outraged at the widening wealth gap in his village. Calling out the underhand tactics of the Shengli (‘Victory’) Corporation who’ve failed to share profits with workers after the privatisation of a nearby mine, Dahai’s desperation eventually boils over into fury. The second story follows Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), an itinerant worker who returns home to visit his wife and child after months away. There’s also Xiao Wu (Zhao Tao), a receptionist at a sex-sauna engaged in an affair with a rich business man, and Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a young Shengli factory drone with little or no foreseeable future.

The outrage simmering beneath the surface of A Touch of Sin isn’t simply a product of four disparate and isolated incidents. In a recent interview with Sight & Sound, Jia revealed that a fifth episode was at one point on the cards, based upon a case in Xi’an where a privileged teen had hit a pregnant woman in his car before getting out and finishing her off (he’d been taught that “the poor always bring trouble”, the director explains). Thus, it’s the generationally inherited divide between rich and poor, hopeful and hopeless, and predator and prey that drives Jia’s genre-flirting drama from one bloody encounter to the next. Dahai, perhaps the most sympathetic of all the wronged, wants only what is rightfully his, taking up arms not as an act of homicidal malevolence but as a means of gaining some vague form of control over his own fate. Grinning in the backseat of a luxury sedan, face covered in dripping viscera, victory is his.

Whilst comparisons have been made between Jia’s province-spanning revenger and the cinema of Quentin Tarantino, the ‘Sixth Generation’ director never feels the need to tie himself in knots linking the individual strands. There are no ‘chance meetings’ between the quartet. Instead, topical contemporary issues such as mass worker migration and class division, in addition to the ominous corporate shadow of the all-powerful Shengli (an effective cipher for any number of real-life Chinese conglomerates), bind his ‘sinners’ together without the need for such hokey Hollywood contrivances. Expanding on the themes explored in the Golden Lion-winning Still Life (2006) and his preceding Shanxi-set Hometown Trilogy, whilst at the same time drawing influence from Chinese genre cinema and traditional iconography, A Touch of Sin serves as an unrelenting reality check for a nation preoccupied with looking outwards rather than inwards.

A Touch of Sin is released in UK cinemas this Friday. To read our interview with Jia Zhangke, simply follow this link.

Daniel Green