A Touch of Sin sparkles with sordid tales of weird crime
Starring Zhao Tao and Jiang Wu. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Unrated. Opens Friday, November 1, at the Vancity Theatre
The flow of beautiful images captured here—from windblown deserts to neon-lit boulevards and vast factory complexes—is reason enough to see A Touch of Sin, which won this year’s Cannes prize for best screenplay but remains unreleased in China. Still, a little context helps.
Writer-director Jia Zhangke (The World and 24 City) scoured underground websites for sordid tales of weird crime and government malfeasance to patch together a dreamlike narrative of four roughly half-hour stories. His hard-luck characters shift locales to make the transitions, and the rootlessness of modern Chinese life is central, as everyone crosses vast distances for work, love, reinvention, or, in the case of the first story, revenge.
The Toshiro Mifune–like Jiang Wu plays a bullheaded miner pissed at his village chief for selling the collective coal mine and pocketing the profits. Next up, a restless motorcyclist (Wang Baoqiang) decides that guns will get him everything he needs in China’s materialistic new economy.
In the most stylized segment, a sensitive massage-parlour receptionist (Zhao Tao, the director’s wife and frequent star) meets her married lover and walks off with his folding knife—which, too soon, comes in handy. Finally, a handsome lad (Luo Lanshan) flits between jobs, landing at a high-end brothel where girls wear abbreviated Red Army uniforms and march in formation for their wealthy clients.
Throughout, the director contrasts cold, suddenly violent behaviour with courtly Chinese traditions, family bonds, and the collective vision that briefly gave disparate people a national identity. Now, Jia seems to say, they’ve become more like the animals we (really) see cruelly treated, and he’s most interested in how they bare their teeth.