Titled and opening like a spaghetti western, Jia Zhangke’s new movie opens with a tomato-ladden truck toppled to block a two-lane highway. Three young toughs waylay a passing motorcyclist. He takes out a gun and mows them down. Something explodes: “A Touch of Sin”.
Preparing to make his first truly commercial film, a period martial arts epic, Jia was diverted by reality—or rather, the reality of the internet. “A Touch of Sin”, which opens today after playing the New York Film Festival, restages four instances of individual violence which the filmmaker discovered on Chinese microblogs. “A Touch of Sin” may not be exactly sensational but it’s certainly sensationalist.
The protagonists include two blood-spattered avengers—one, a miner is driven mad by village corruption, the other, a receptionist in a brothel-spa responding to attempted rape—as well as a professional thief who murders his victims and a suicide. In every case, the individual is responding to the pressures of a specific social situation in a different part of China. “That’s our reality now,” the actress and Jia axiom Zhao Tao (who plays the receptionist) was quoted as saying in the New York Times. Evidently the Chinese Film Bureau accepted the fact, not to mention the report in the Guardian, that Chinese leader Xi Jinping had “praised the edgy independent film-maker Jia Zhangke.” “A Touch of Sin” was shown with only minor changes in competition at Cannes (where it won the award for best screenplay) and is scheduled to open in China next month.
“A Touch of Sin” is Jia’s most conventional movie and hence, in a way, his most obvious representation of China as a Hobbesian industrial behemoth. (The 2002 “Unknown Pleasures” which in my opinion remains his strongest film, is more subtle and corrosive.) Still, with the exception of the movie’s fourth episode, the news items dramatized in “A Touch of Sin” have only minimal depth. It may be that Jia realizes that in making this blatantly populist tabloid entertainment he is walking a fine line—he inserts himself the last episode as dance director in at a posh sleazy hotel cum brothel called the Golden Age.
Image: Kino Lorber