There’s a scene in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin that has strong parallels to his 2006 masterpiece Still Life, which followed two travelers through the devastation resulting from construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In both films, a man arrives in the crumbling town of Fengjie by boat, and hitches a ride on a motorbike. But the circumstances are very different. In Still Life, a coal miner is searching for the wife and daughter he hasn’t seen for years. In A Touch of Sin,, the young man has fled a neighboring province after shooting three men armed with hatchets, and more brutality lies ahead of him.
To those who have seen Jia’s films, the settings may be familiar — semi-urban factory towns, quiet boat tours along the Yangtze — but the action is not. A Touch of Sin is a monstrous, desperate condemnation of the systemic ailments plaguing China today, including corruption, improperly regulated sex trade, and the mass displacement of rural workers. To illustrate the brutal effects of these conditions on ordinary people, Jia made the decision, perhaps a counterintuitive one, to treat classic wuxia films as a narrative and visual antecedent (the film’s English title is a play on 1971’s A Touch of Zen. He channels this approach through four vignettes, each following a character whose life is marked in some way by inescapable hardship — among them, Dahai (Jiang Wu), a loud-mouthed miner whose complaints of corruption fall on deaf ears, and Xiaoyu (played by Zhao Tao, who is Jia’s wife and has acted in many of his films), a service worker who has just broken up with her married boyfriend.
In an interview with Film Comment a few years ago, Jia stated that his goal with Still Life was “to depict the compression of time, the sense of no longer living a natural existence.” To do so, he incorporated fleeting moments of dreamlike impossibility, an errant spaceship echoing the incongruent reality of a suddenly razed building. His use of violence in the new film, all splashing blood and sudden explosions, is a more direct depiction of a country’s collective future shock — an undefinable rage expressed in a recognizable film idiom.
Yet Jia isn’t just parroting genre conventions. Though Touch of Sin’s action sequences are sensational, the spaces between them are subtle, elegiac, and even, at times, tenderly funny. Often, his camera lingers on communal gatherings — public Beijing Opera performances subtly bookend the film’s action — or passing conversations on the street. There’s a humanist underpinning to his work that connects him to Italian neo-realists like Roberto Rosselini, whose episodic Paisà detailed the Allied invasion of Italy, and Luchino Visconti, whose semi-documentary La Terra Trema depicted the Job-like suffering of Sicilian fishermen ignored by the national government. As we follow Dahai through the ornate entrance at Wujinshan, a rural mining village, or Xiaoyu walks a highway blasted through jagged cliffs, there is a palpable sense of disconnect that feels equal parts documentarian and uncanny.
Jia has a flair for the surreal that’s all his own. In one scene, a troupe of beautiful women dressed in modified army fatigues put on a show for wealthy clients, and the camera slithers directly through the pliant processional like a predatory animal. But there’s equal weight to quiet interstitial moments that hint at the indescribable breadth of human experience, as when two twenty-something hotel workers peer at an iPad in an unused room, or when we see Dahai, eating purposefully, glance to the right, and the camera angle suddenly shifts to reveal snow falling outside.
A Touch of Sin is currently under a media embargo in China, where a leak from the Central Propaganda Department revealed that Chinese journalists had been asked to refrain from commenting or reporting on the film. Government distrust likely stems from the fact that some of the stories depicted, violent as they are, are based on real events — notably, a murder that took place at a salon in 2009, and a rash of suicides by workers at Foxconn Technology plants. Yet figures of authority appear in the film as both distant and constant, offering few windows to examine their morality. A Touch of Sin’s power doesn’t come from direct criticism, nor from the much-discussed violence (in the last thirty minutes, there’s hardly any) but from the desolate version of everyday life it depicts. As we move from character to character, the vignettes progress from cathartic to utterly tragic. In the last of the four stories, we get a glimpse of real hope in the unfulfilled promise of youthful romance, but by the film’s conclusion we are back literally where we started, in impoverished Wujinshan. “Do you understand your sin?” shrieks an actor in the town square, the final shot lingering on an audience of impassive faces.