Jia Zhang-ke sees modern day China as an expansive minefield of potential narratives, each one ready to trigger its own perspective on the countless institutional and societal issues that ultimately impact identity, gender roles, and economic expansion. Fittingly, his films typically dance between documentary and fiction, subverting traditional narrative structures to create a cinema of inferred and allegorical critique. A few stylistic patterns persist: Verbose documentary subjects (some real, some imagined) confess their unhappiness with flawed social systems yet immerse themselves in the routine of suffering. Hollow industrial symbols house working-class conscripts attempting to rebuild spaces from the inside out. In Jia’s world, personal contradiction implies national malaise.
Yet Jia’s new film, A Touch of Sin, is all the more abnormal and harrowing because it completely reverses this tendency. Not only is it a sprawling and beguiling fable that drifts between the lives of four desperate characters living in different districts, it makes no qualms about using genre to shred nuance. The proof is in the visual consequences of every shotgun blast. Part revenge film, part cyclical nightmare, A Touch of Sin forcefully explores the experiences of these wandering souls weathered by contradiction, broken by corruption, and possessed by weaponry. Each story overlaps slightly, but is never dependent or linked to the other. All are thematically connected by the possibility (and exaction) of violence, which erupts in public places, at dinner tables, and in cars in striking and abrupt fashion.
Interesting, then, that the opening image—a wall of lush banana leaves frayed at the edges—gives a false sense of solace and nature that returns only intermittently. It can also be seen in the moment where raindrops batter the dusty hood of a car immediately after a brutal killing. From the first story involving a factory worker driven mad by bureaucratic stagnancy, it’s clear that Jia is interested in the aggressive tango between action and reaction. Bubbling rage and social impotence are facts of life for Dahai (Jiang Wu), a low-level worker who repeatedly calls out his village leaders for cheating the town out of money earned in a business deal with the state. As Dahai confronts each crooked limb of this intricate operation, he grows more disillusioned with his place in the community. His anger peaks when some paid thugs brutally beat him on the runway of the local airfield, leading to a series of murders that destroy the corrupt line of communication with two barrels.
A Touch of Sin only becomes more intricate and layered as it moves forward. One thread involving a nomad migrant worker, whose hand seems to be elementally linked to his pistol, is especially fascinating for its brutal pragmatism toward family traditions and patriarchy. Gender roles and male chauvinism are skewered (quite literally in fact) during the bizarre third section about a woman attempting to overcome the moment her longtime lover’s wife exacts vengeance. Starring Jia staple Zhao Tao, this segment furthers a key theme regarding the near-mystical hold weapons can have over people pushed to the limits of their control, not to mention the motif of physical bodies being whipped into submission.
Possibly the most stunning segment involves a young man who comes to represent China’s newest generation. After finding temporary work in a high-end brothel, Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) attempts to court one of the girls, seemingly with the most noble of intentions. Ironically, his advances are stunted not by a lack of emotional connection or love, but by the girl’s desire to remain ingratiated in the economically comfortable cycle of her work life. In A Touch of Sin, there is no room for romantic love, especially when this world swallows up those hoping to exact any kind of change.
If Jia destroys subtlety in favor of immediacy, he does so not to simply paint the frame red with carnage, but to explore the thoughtless reasons why we reach for these killing machines in the first place. Is it something instinctual inside of us, or is it an action that has been learned over thousands of years of frustration and repression? Or are we just “worshipping ghosts,” as one character muses during an impromptu prayer, making the weaponry itself just another form of religious expression? A Touch of Sin asks many questions but refuses to answer them, instead layering symbols, events, and repercussions from one story to the next. The end result is ambitious, disturbing, and kinetic, something akin to a modern day prophecy forewarning a plague of national rot and disillusionment already on its way to settling in forever.
Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.