Followers of Jia Zhangke’s filmic output might be surprised by his latest offering. His body of work is known for its blending of fact with fiction and its combination of understated social commentary and humanist philosophy. As such, the unflinchingly violent A Touch of Sin may, at first glance, seem somewhat incongruous.
Drawn from four news stories which Jia found on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent to Twitter), A Touch of Sin is an episodic piece following the descent of four “everymen” (of which one is a woman) into violence as a last, desperate solution to their struggles to survive in China’s contemporary capitalist economy. The characters are a mixed bag, drawn from a variety of locales, ages, and situations; the first episode, “Black Gold Mountain”, sees Dahai, unmarried and middle aged, railing against the disparity in the distribution of wealth in his village. The second sees a thief and killer returning to his wife and child to celebrate New Year; the third, a female receptionist at a sex sauna who longs for her lover to leave his wife, and the fourth, a young man struggling to find purchase on life as he drifts through a number of service and labour jobs.
Jia’s tone has shifted in an angry crescendo and A Touch of Sin is merely a more direct approach to the same issues which have always concerned him. The nods to Sergio Leone and King Hu, the violent revenge drama format, and most of all the geographical and situational spread of the stories upon which the film’s narratives draw, all serve the director’s wish to “explore violence from different angles”, “violence which arises from social issues”. The narrative as the sum of its chapters is framed by the exponential growth of the Shengli Corportation, a capitalist behemoth whose shadow hangs over the whole film, corrupting and defiling the lives of those that it touches.
Violence may be the name of the game for A Touch of Sin, but at no point does the film revel in bloodshed or spectacle in the way that Park Chan-Wook’s Revenge Trilogy does. Jia does, of course, rely on the shock value carried by the unflinching portrayals of violence borne of desperation, but his intention is to capture his audience’s moral attention, to emphasise the humanity of his characters in a subversion of the format as employed by the likes of Quentin Tarantino. Where films such as Oldboy, Kill Bill, and The Raid encourage their audiences to eagerly await the next addition to the body count, A Touch of Sin never allows us to forget the horror of the violence and the circumstances of its making.
Although it is the film’s script which has been its most widely lauded aspect, winning the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes when it was exhibited last year, the work as a whole is an impressive piece. Drawing on a range of influences as broad and culturally relevant as The Water Margin, martial arts films, and contemporary news stories, Jia’s film also showcases some strong performances from Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, and Zhao Tao, all well known as actors. As an original take on the revenge thriller genre which is in equal turns engaging, disturbing, enlightening, and current, A Touch of Sin is an impressive move in a new direction for an already accomplished filmmaker.