Lacks execution but is still worth watching if given the chance.
A Touch of Sin
The opening of Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin shows a conversation communicated entirely with violence. A migrant worker (Wang Baoqiang) travelling on his motorcycle is stopped by three young men in an attempt to rob him. The man responds to their brandished weapons by swiftly pulling out a gun and murdering all three. As the man drives off, he passes by two grisly scenes: a corpse from a truck accident, and an explosion that goes off in the distance.
This is how A Touch of Sin prepares viewers for what’s to come. A bloody, angry protest film (which has the Chinese government ordering media to never mention its existence), Jia presents four loosely connected stories that all show the same thing: one character, pushed to the brink by powers beyond their control, lashes out in a brutal act of violence. This makes each story play out at a slow boil. When a new central character emerges, it’s only a matter of time before the breaking point is reached and someone’s life (or multiple lives) is/are taken.
The first of these four stories follows Dahai (Jiang Wu), a worker for a mining company who’s livid at his bosses. The mines, which used to be owned by the town, were sold off to a private company. The company’s owners pocketed the profits it promised to share with the village, making Dahai try to file a complaint with the government. His attempts to get the company’s accountant to expose the truth fails as he discovers that many people have been bribed into silence. It doesn’t take long for word to get around (mostly from Dahai himself, whose boasting about going against his bosses lead to some unfortunate consequences), and soon he’s being offered money to stay quiet. Dahai responds to the offer with his rifle, in what is by far the bloodiest conclusion in the film.
This first act, the strongest of all four, encapsulates what Jia is angrily expressing throughout. China’s embrace of extreme capitalism has devalued human lives, reducing them to commodities at best and obstacles at worst. The effect of this has made violence and death more common, as the thirst for money and profit takes precedence over morals. Dahai’s story might be the most satisfying one because his acts, while horrifying and unjustifiable, are at least aimed towards people who are perpetuating this system. The following three stories, all just as horrifying and more tragic, show its characters releasing their rage on other cogs in the machine.
The man on the motorcycle from the beginning takes center stage for the second act, as he travels home to celebrate his mother’s birthday. This section, which has the least focus, takes shape closer to the end as we see just how much power his gun gives him. The third story revolves around a receptionist (Zhao Tao) at a sauna whose personal problems cause her to lose it on an aggressive customer. The final act, moving at a snail’s pace, shows a young man (Luo Lanshan) who causes a co-worker to get injured in an accident. When he’s told his salary will be taken from him until the co-worker recovers, he runs off to one menial job after another.
The last story may be the slowest, but it’s also the most pessimistic. The protagonist, the youngest of all the main characters, and his decisions show how the system he’s a part of have caused people to take little or no value in themselves. I have immense admiration for what Jia tries to do here. His message is on point, the violence is brutal and effective, and the film is well-crafted (given its structure and themes, it’s easy to see why the Cannes jury awarded it Best Screenplay this year). Unfortunately my admiration did not translate into enjoyment. Each story’s hammering home of the same point cause the film to lose steam quickly, and while the message is strong it isn’t substantive enough to carry the two hour runtime. The characters feel like blank slates rather than well-defined people, and the attempt to connect all four characters at the end is unnecessary. Regardless, A Touch of Sin is still worth watching if given the chance. Its execution may be lacking, but thankfully it doesn’t take away from the power of Jia’s intentions.