Modern China has Jia Zhangke seeing red in blistering A Touch of Sin 

Chinese Shakedown

Chinese Shakedown

"A third-world filmmaker necessarily has to reinvent his own brand new cinema, squeezed by the rule of immediate profit (tougher in cinema than anywhere else), and the risk of a brutal clash with power. These are the directors who affect us deeply. Satyajit Ray in the 50's, Ousmane Sembène in the 60's." Although the late, great French critic Serge Daney wrote those words in 1981 — and China is hardly a Third World country — they apply just as strongly to the work of Jia Zhangke over the past 15 years. In films such as Platform and Unknown Pleasures, Jia has dedicated himself to speaking for the people left behind or damaged by his country's economic boom. But with A Touch of Sin, he's started shouting. It's the angriest film I've seen about contemporary China. 

Jia's framing device depicts a Chinese opera performance, but the movie begins with a man shooting three thugs who try to rob him. From there, A Touch of Sin tells four different stories ending in death. Miner Dahai (Jiang Wu), enraged by his village's corruption, turns vigilante. Migrant Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), separated from his wife by distance, becomes enamored of his gun. Receptionist Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao), who works at a sauna that attracts sleazy men, balks at the assumption that she's a sex worker. Factory worker Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) travels across China, going from one menial job to the next. 

A Touch of Sin suggests that Jia no longer finds the humanism of his early films a helpful tool for understanding modern China. Instead, he draws on popular — and often violent — cinema from King Hu to Johnnie To. The former gets a shout-out in the film's English-language title, a play on his classic A Touch of Zen; a brief clip of one of the latter's films is shown on a bus. Without glorifying violence, A Touch of Sin portrays it as an understandably cathartic response to oppressive circumstances such as poverty and pervasive corruption. In this, it finds unlikely kinship with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, albeit without that film's hip smart-assery.

But the movie is decidedly not neo-realism. Going back to The World and Still Life, Jia's films have long had surreal touches, like a UFO launching in the latter film. Here, his direction veers between naturalism and action (e.g., Xiao Yu turning into a King Hu heroine when confronted by a man who mistakes her for a prostitute). But the film has one thing Tarantino's never worked with: a strong, direct connection to reality. All four stories in A Touch of Sin are based on actual events recognizable to a Chinese audience. "I wanted to use these news reports to build a comprehensive portrait of life in contemporary China," Jia says in a press-kit director's note. "[Many] people still face personal crises because of the uneven spread of wealth across the country."

Jia proves himself here a master of pacing. The first section builds to a crescendo of rage, aided by Jiang Wu's ferocious performance. From there, the film's rhythms are more depressive and melancholy. Although each section takes place in a different region of China, the film includes subtle references to other sections, often in the form of news reports. The first section risks turning into a sub-Park Chan-wook revenge fantasy, but the only scene I find problematic is the one where Dahai kills a man who beats his horse. Here, Jia hypocritically engages in genuine animal cruelty in order to condemn it. (Later, he depicts the slaughter of a duck.)

Mainland Chinese censors banned A Touch of Sin after initially approving it. It's easy to see why: Even in an American context the movie strikes a raw nerve. Gun massacres, the easy availability of all kinds of weaponry, rampant sexism, a wide gap between the rich and poor, the temptation of youth suicide — none of these seem particularly foreign. A Touch of Sin describes a reality that extends far beyond China, as (un)exotic as the evening news. The cold comfort it offers is that through Jia's eyes, it looks a lot more artful.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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