Jia Zhangke’s latest film, A Touch Of Sin, has caused something of a stir in his native China, where censors refused the film’s screening. It seems generally believed that this is not only because of the film’s violence (which is considerable at times, but far from boundary-breaking), but also thanks to the greater depiction of a nation that the film paints; that of a land of injustices, of exploitation and of unrecognised daily tragedies.
Divided up into four stories, all of which reportedly originate in some form of true tale or another (hot from Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), A Touch Of Sin amounts to a portmanteau film in which four distinctly different forms of murderous violence are presented; a premeditated grudge-based murder spree, the startling, quick act of the opportunist, the desperate impulse of someone pushed to their limits, and another kind of life-altering violence completely. Think of it as the high-brow ABCs Of Death.
In a sense such quirky pigeonholing does Zhangke’s film a disservice. No matter how you are affected by the film’s stilted shape and languid pacing, one thing that is undeniable is the mastery of technique on display here. If nothing else, A Touch Of Sin is immensely impressive as an aesthetic experience. Zhangke’s camera glides slowly, deliberately around various locales, from venerated temples to dingy industrial estates, gleaming factory interiors to Gondry-esque houses of pleasure. A sumptuous blending of exquisite photography and precise production design give all elements of the film a studied, purposefully appearance, backed by a truly dreamlike score from Lim Giong.
In fact, as these odysseys unfurl, they seem to become more and more dreamlike. As we hang onto one player’s perspective after another, a sense builds of one chameleonic tale unfolding. Anyone hoping for a coherent narrative woven between the four tales is setting themselves up for disappointment, however. A Touch Of Sin is as captivating as it is frustratingly intangible, slipping in and out of the viewer’s grasp. Part of this will come down to how gripped the viewer is by the particular story laid in front of them. My interest levels flitted from driven-to-distraction to utterly transfixed, such is the fickle nature of the episodic structure.
The eruptions of violence in each story only adds to the sense of shattered reality, or, I suppose more precisely, heightened reality, as moments of comparative banality are upended by extreme moments of bloody drama. The gun and knife play here is often over remarkably quickly, hitting like abrupt punctuation marks in the otherwise smooth surface of the film, knocking the viewer off-kilter forcefully as they mark the end of certain characters’ journeys.
Jiang Wu’s disillusioned miner Dahai perceives a roar coming from the image of a tiger on the cloth he wraps his shotgun in as he stalks his work site, ending lives. This one incredible flourish is the only unhinged element to the character, who seems remarkably at ease with his decision. Wu approaches the role with a kind of subdued calm, akin to the relaxed perversity of the killers in late-period Ballard novels.
Elsewhere, most engaging of all, Zhao Tao conjures audience sympathy as sauna receptionist Xiao Yu. Together with the film’s final protagonist Luo Lanshan, Tao’s story suggests simply that we all have a breaking point. Zhangke’s detached approach keeps us largely outside of his characters’ minds. When they snap we are left only to witness the repercussions, imprinting them with whatever empathy we can conjure. It makes A Touch Of Sin a strangely passive viewing experience. Met in the wrong frame of mind, this film could seem utterly listless, without intent other than to shatter moments of everyday life with unusual acts of violence.
The end result, therefore, is something of a compromise. There’s a sense of an overall point being made, a cultural statement that perhaps will resonate most with the film’s native audiences. However, it may equally be that Zhangke’s at-times rambling film is exactly as formless as it can appear to be. Perhaps tellingly the final image is a sea of faces staring right back at us, apparently searching for meaning. With this in mind, the score below reflects the dual nature of a film which is as often as fascinating as it is maddening, but one which is still exceptionally presented.