It may sound funny to call a film with so much darkness and violence in it a delight, but that’s just how Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” felt from its opening shot. (UPDATE: the film won the Cannes screenplay prize.) Based on stories ripped from the headlines, it follows four different characters in four different Chinese provinces: a miner, a migrant worker, a hostess in a sauna, a young man just starting out in life. For differing reasons, they each commit acts of violence, and it is Zhangke’s suggestion that this is a result of a new, alienating China.
“In this film I can share my feelings about contemporary society,” Zhangke said at the press conference. “What I have observed recently with great curiosity and interest is an increase in violent events. I thought it was necessary to talk about these things in film, and to put it in a very contemporary setting, like a martial arts film. If these characters were alive 300 years ago, in the era of the emperors, they would have behaved [just so]. Have human beings really changed? Probably not.”
The Chinese title, “The Choice of Heaven,” makes for an interesting counterpoint to the westernized “A Touch of Sin,” which is taken from martial arts films, specifically, I guess, a 1971 film called “A Touch of Zen.” The film features three wonderful known actors – Jiang Wu, possessor of one of the great faces in film today; Baoqiang Wang; and the directors wife/muse, Zhao Tao. “When I wrote the film,” said Zhangke, “I had in mind the three top actors, because I thought they could do this crude violence but with very complex emotions.” The two young newcomers, Lanshan Luo and Meng Li, were found after a national search.
“A Touch of Sin” is not all darkness. At one point, one man asks Wu’s character if he wants to move to another land. “No,” he replies, “they’re all bankrupt.”