Arts movie review

A touch of Wuxia

A violent look inside provincial China

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A Touch of Sin, a new film by Jia Zhangke.
Kino Lorber


A Touch Of Sin

Directed by Jia Zhang-ke

Starring Wu Jiang, Boiqiang Wang, Tao Zhao, and Lanshan Luo

Not Rated

Jan. 3–6, 2014

Playing at the Brattle Theatre

In A Touch of Sin, writer-director Jia Zhang-ke and cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-Wai depict the violence and moral confusion of a new, materialist China. Divided into four main sections, the film presents stories from four different provinces across the mainland.

In Shanxi, Dahai (Wu Jiang) reluctantly gives directions to a truckful of thieves before a crumbling statue of Mao Zedong. Dahai seeks redress after the village-owned coal mine was privatized without public consent — while the village roads remain unpaved, the factory’s owner arrives by private jet.

Journeying home to Chongqing, Zhou San (Baoqiang Wang) kills three young highway robbers in cold blood. Reunited with his wife and son, he compares the freedom afforded him by his semi-automatic to the responsibilities of provincial life.

Shortly after being accosted by her lover’s wife, Xiao Yu (Tao Zhao) is driven to the breaking point by two sauna customers demanding that she have sex with them for money, which isn’t in her job description.

After an accident in a sweatshop factory leaves him heavily indebted, Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo) escapes to find a different job. When he falls in love with a young prostitute (Li Meng) at his new workplace, he is forced to confront the cruel reality of his circumstance.

In this film, violence is part of the landscape. From the needless gunfire of the opening scene to a businessman soliciting sex from an unwilling woman by slapping her with a wad of cash, we see each character’s ultimate turn to violence as a product of the confused, morally-abject world into which they’re thrust.

Zhang-ke has claimed that A Touch of Sin is an attempt at entering the Wuxia genre of Chinese martial-arts films — the film’s title references the Wuxia classic A Touch of Zen (1971). The director’s aim becomes evident as each character’s story degenerates into violence; the turn-by-turn action/reaction cinematography, and heavily stylized sounds of fighting against an otherwise subdued soundscape both call to mind Wuxia. The combination of these tropical elements with each story’s hyper-realistic, modern setting is what sets the film apart. As each story progresses, we watch the — complex, modern — protagonist transform into a retrograde action hero. The result is terrifying.

Both in style and content, Zhang-ke seems particularly interested in exploring the relationship between Chinese tradition and modernity. Twice, we see traditional Chinese dramas about justice being played out in village centers, children’s bells ringing loudly and emptily out into a world where justice seems not to exist. However, while the director’s criticism of a confused, materialistic, morally vacant new China hits home, what seems missing is a discussion of how China reached this critical point. Perhaps this is beyond the film’s scope. At any rate, it is a fantastic watch — violent yet fundamentally human. If you have a stomach for it, I thoroughly recommend it.