Big Troubles In China: A Touch of Sin

09/25/2013 4:00 AM |

A Touch of Sin
Directed by Jia Zhang-ke

There’s a moment in Jia Zhang-ke’s superb new film when we see one of the two main characters from Still Life, the director’s 2006 portrait of displacement during the Three Gorges dam project. The glimpse is a way of affirming Jia’s continuing project of mapping present-day China, but if the two movies exist in the same universe, the four stories told in A Touch of Sin trace bloodier forces at work, as if sounding a warning about the violence close to the surface of a routinely disrupted society (and in so doing, rupturing what could threaten to become a cliché of anomie amid large-scale upheaval). Whereas Still Life had the feel (and at times the look) of a mural reeling past, A Touch of Sin finds writer-director Jia and cinematographer Yu Likwai confronting us with the full shock of its news-based, mythically infused tragedies.

Envisioned by Jia as a martial-arts film about his country and depicted with bits-of-brain explicitness, A Touch of Sin opens with the brutal gunplay of a roadside assault that evokes the Wild West, as does a later, hair-trigger brawl over a gambling table. The stories, dotted with incidental portraiture, span China and present a moral panorama: the distraught Shanxi villager grilling and blasting away corrupt officials; the cold-eyed killer from the opening; the massage-parlor greeter who slashes a cash-wad-wielding customer; and, as crucial counterpoint to these convulsive outbursts, the heartbreaking pop-star-fresh factory worker turned pleasure-palace attendant turned no-hoper.

It’s become commonplace to dub this or that Chinese documentary, or Jia’s past films, as dispatches from an industrializing country, but A Touch of Sin, in its wonders and horrors and social upheaval, especially evokes some 19th-century tour of weird, new America in the throes of rapacious expansion. Yet Jia also shadows this modern world with Chinese literary references, deepening his film with past art that has dramatized injustice and revenge (and rebuffing the erasure of culture and history). Jia’s film does not celebrate its violence, as it skillfully tacks between the vividness of killing and the even clearer, empty sense that nothing is really changed.

Opens October 4