Touch of Sin, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/06/14 17:11:33

"A touch that's difficult to top."
5 stars (Awesome)

Considering the tales that have been told about China's film censorship bureau and the way that most of the films exported from tend to be set in a prosperous Beijing, the existence of something like "A Touch of Sin" is almost shocking; it runs completely counter to that narrative. Its four stories have their individual moments that shock, too, but the film is better than the moments of surprise it creates; it's an engrossing collection anchored by its intriguing characters.

It starts out as the story of Dahai (Wu Jiang), a much-liked resident of a coal town who aims to fight the corruption around how the village is being exploited but which he may be no match for. From there, it segues to that of Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), a migrant worker who sends a great deal of money back to his family but may be rather ruthless in how he does so. Then there's Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao), a "sauna" receptionist having an affair with a married man (Zhang Jia-yi), and Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a careless factory worker who at least meets a nice girl ("Vivien" Li Meng) when he takes a job as a waiter in a nightclub.

The four tales are connected, although writer/director Jia Zhang-ke doesn't make a recurring gimmick of how he does so: At one point a scene starts with one protagonist and ends with another, but the next transition is an almost completely clean break. It makes for an unusually balanced split between the stories being very individual and also unified by the same underlying issues. As impressive as the structure is, it works in large part because the four stories nestled within it are strong individually. Averaging a bit over a half-hour each, they have enough time to let the audience get to know the person and situation in question and also have a full story play out. All four are strong, too; one is unlikely to find oneself just marking time until the next one comes along in any of them.

Having a strong anchor in each does a good job of making sure of that. Though all four leads are good, Wu Jiang probably makes the strongest impression as Dahai; he starts out with an earnest nobility, and never completely loses it even as the story reveals he may be a crackpot. While the other characters can be opaque in some ways, Wu gets to put everything Dahai feels up front, and Jia seems to enjoy using that openness, getting many of the film's biggest and darkest laughs from just how inevitable what happens next is when he enters a scene.

Even if the rest aren't always presenting themselves as plainly as Dahai, they are still intriguing enough to fascinate. Wang Baoqiang does it via his blankness; there's something human missing in San'ner, and it's heightened by the way the rest of the characters and actors around him let just enough nervousness through to amplify that feeling. Zhao Tao, meanwhile, gets the audience to feel for Xiaoyu despite all the questionable places she has willingly put herself into, and shifts to an intensity that seems absolutely right as her story hits the climax. Luo Lanshan, on the other hand, plays Xiao Hui almost without the capability of intensity, although he does a fine job of showing the fragility that such hollowness can lead to.

Interestingly, none of the main characters' weaknesses or emptiness seems to stem from greed, even though it's almost impossible to deny that the consuming capitalism that has insinuated itself into every corner of China is at the heart of most characters' misery. Jia spends little if any time on the happy consumer side of the system, showing the factories of Guangzhou rather than the shops in Beijing, but even though some of his characters decry the injustice of the system, he's more likely to indict it just by showing the plain reality of the situation - massive migrations, no work to be found in the villages, thoroughly arbitrary use of authority. It's society rotting from the inside out, creating a situation where the ruthless thrive and the good just try and get by.

Despite not shouting this point, Jia's film is far from dry. That's quite literally the case, as each segment has at least one moment of surprisingly intense and bloody violence, effective enough that the clips of Johnnie To and Tsui Hark movies that show up are almost comical in how safe their action seems. He and cinematographer "Nelson" Yu Lik-wai also put some amazing images up on screen, from the strange traffic accident that opens the film to roads carved out of cliff faces to highway bridges feeding industrial cities like an IV. It's stunning and all on-point.

It may take a bit of thought to reach that conclusion; I readily admit that I might not be recommending it so highly if I hadn't followed my viewing up with a film of roughly the same length whose extended final act emphasized how "A Touch of Sin" never petered out, or if I had found one thing to complain about while writing about it. I don't know that this is Jia's masterpiece, but of his films that have made it to American theaters, it's probably the one that expresses his concerns about the direction China is moving in both most eloquently and most forcefully.

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