A blistering fictionalized tale straight out of China, "A Touch of Sin" is at once monumental and human scale. A story of lives rocked by violence, it has the urgency of a screaming headline but one inscribed with visual lyricism, emotional weight and a belief in individual rights. You can feel the conviction of its director, Jia Zhang-ke, in every shot. In "A Touch of Sin," the world isn’t an amorphous backdrop, pretty scenery for private dramas, it is a stage on which men and women struggle to fulfill basic moral obligations, including recognizing one another’s humanity.
Divided into four main sections, each centered on a different character, the movie, which screened in October at the Hawaii International Film Festival, opens near a northern town where a man in a green army coat, Dahai (Jiang Wu), has started a solitary campaign against the village chief and the local boss, who have grown rich selling collective property. Most of the villagers turn away from Dahai and his protests, laughing and grimacing by turns, seemingly resigned to what might be called fate. Jia, however, is interested in forces beyond the providential. What concerns him are people who, caught in the jaws of historical change, are battered, exploited and dehumanized by others who now value only things, like the plane the big boss buys and the Maserati he parks unlocked at his factory.
|‘A TOUCH OF SIN’
Opens today at Pearlridge 16
Shiny totems of the new China, these luxury items are a striking contrast to the village’s forlorn statue of Mao (representative of a fading belief system) and its Buddhist temple (symbolic of yet older beliefs), at which Dahai takes a brutal, lonely stand. Yet while he is very much a man alone, his presence, fight against corruption, and convictions rise like ghosts later in the movie, when prostitutes working in a luxurious nightclub march out in Vegas-style versions of Red Army uniforms that are perverse mockeries of Dahai’s humble coat. In some movies, such connecting moments can be quasi-mystical and sentimental and tend to gut whatever political point hovers in the vicinity. Here, the characters are connected by their existential reality of life in contemporary China.
Dahai’s story is followed by that of Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), who rides into the movie on a motorcycle wearing black. He’s returning to his home in Chongqing, a huge southwestern city on the upper Yangtze River that’s set against the scarred beauty of the mountainous Three Gorges region, now the site of the largest hydroelectric project in the world. High-rises pierce the hazy sky and peasants grow vegetables on riverbanks. No one seems happy to see Zhou San, who pinches his son’s cheeks until the boy cries. His wife looks away; his mother looks through him. There’s menace in his every gesture but what they can’t know is that he recently gunned down three men in what feels like a Hobbesian war of all against all.
"A Touch of Sin" builds with implacable tension and urgency. This, Jia seems to be saying, is happening right here, right now. The eruptions of violence add to the intensity, as do other filmmaking choices. Jia has long blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction through his use of digital cinematography, which helps convey a sense of documentarylike immediacy, and through real locations and nonprofessionals working with trained actors. In his movies, characters feel as if they live in a world that’s so rapidly changing, so unsettled and destabilizing, that it seems the very ground under them is collapsing along with innumerable social, political and aesthetic frameworks.
The third section follows a woman, Xiao Yu, a sauna receptionist played by Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and frequent star. Xiao Yu wears her long hair in a ponytail that evokes that of the heroine in King Hu’s classic martial arts film "A Touch of Zen" — a touchstone here for Jia — and is having an affair with a married man. Her story opens soon before she gives her lover an ultimatum; in return, he gives her a knife that will find its mark. Later, she unknowingly follows the same footsteps as the character in the final section, a young man, Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), who’s spiraling into debt and despair.
Violence sometimes shifts "A Touch of Sin" into a more stylized register, momentarily loosening the realism. When Dahai picks up a shotgun in the first section, there’s a pan to the image of a tiger, and you hear a roar, as if Dahai were possessed by the animal. In the third section, Xiao Yu is beaten and takes shelter in a surrealistic sideshow in which "holy snakes" slither around a young woman’s feet. But after Xiao Yu is beaten a second time, she, too, seems transformed and assumes the stance of a martial arts warrior, striking exaggerated poses with a raised knife amid the now-Expressionistic light and shadow.
The transformation of Dahai and Xiao Yu is of a piece with the everyday surrealism that Jia, working with his brilliant cinematographer Yu Likwai, finds in cities, villages and along highways. At the same time, the transformation of these characters into archetypes, like Jia’s references to Chinese opera, implies there are other stories, forms and beliefs that China can embrace beyond those represented either by a Mao statue or a private plane. Time is running out, as suggested late in the movie, when a young man and woman slip some live goldfish into a stream, enacting a Buddhist ritual in which captive animals are released to encourage compassion. The animals of course need to be trapped so they can be freed, a dreadful paradox that these two imprisoned people will never experience. (In Mandarin, with English subtitles.)
Manohla Dargis, New York Times