DIR: Jia Zhangke | Dragons & Tigers | China, Japan| 2013 | 133 min. | DCP
Sun, Oct 6 4:15pm | International Village
Half-built bridges, duct-taped shacks, and humdrum rows of factory dorms— welcome to writer-director Jia Zhangke’s China. It’s a far cry from the bamboo forests and neon-lit metropolises Western audiences are used to seeing. But Jia’s latest film, A Touch of Sin, aims to subvert exactly that romantic notion of the rising China. Through four powerful vignettes, Jia shows us the flip side of the “Chinese Dream:” a world tainted by poverty, vice and death.
This isn’t simply a dour social critique, though. A Touch of Sin blends genres, integrating the bloodbaths typical of pulp films with the stylized violence of kung fu flicks. There’s romance too, and more than a little influence from old-fashioned Westerns movies. What’s more is that Jia based many of the film’s events on real Chinese news stories.
The flexibility A Touch of Sin flaunts propelled it to the top of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it swept up the award for best screenplay. Previously, Jia has been recognized with the Dragons and Tigers Award from the 1998 Vancouver International Film Festival, so it’s little wonder A Touch of Sin is one of this year’s most highly anticipated films at VIFF.
The film’s first story concerns Dahai, an aged, grumbling coal worker. When the community coal mine is sold to private interests, he sees the village leaders fatten their purses, without giving any of the money back to the common people. So he promises to do something even more evil in return.
In the second vignette, a father comes home to his rural Chinese village, only to receive an icy welcome from his family. His wife has grown suspicious of this mysterious job he travels for, and her fears are answered when she finds a gun among his luggage.
The third story involves a love-struck mistress who faces the age-old dilemma of convincing her lover to divorce. But one night, as she works as a hostess at an illicit massage parlor, her romantic notions are shattered by acts of unspeakable violence.
And the film ends with a story of lost innocence. Xiao Hui is an attractive young man who is forced to find work wherever he can. He bounces from the factory to the whore house, finding work that’s ever more soul-crushing.
For every character, there’s an animal avatar. Jia often sneaks the animal imagery amid the urban decay, through clothing and everyday decor. But when a real animal does appear onscreen, it often serves as a biting parallel between animal cruelty and the cruelty humans show one another.
With bulls, tigers and snakes all making cameos, Jia evokes elements of the Chinese zodiac and of ideals perhaps forgotten in this new China. To illustrate this conflict between old and new, Jia weaves the four narratives together with mysterious appearances by a Chinese opera troupe. They pop up on street corners or dusty lots, and they breathe a strong sense of tradition and morality into the film. The opera singers wail of love, revenge and sin at key moments—almost like a Greek chorus, interpreting the actions around them.
To describe the themes in A Touch of Sin is to make it seem like a film laden in symbolism and social critique. And it is. Many of the film’s narratives are also well-worn tales of revenge and disillusionment. But these flaws are barely noticeable. They’re disguised by Jia’s snappy dialogue, steady pace and fleshed-out characters. A Touch of Sin deals with heavy subjects, but its approach is pure popcorn.
A standout among the narratives is the story of Dahai, played by Wu Jiang. Ornery but loveable, Jiang’s Dahai is a Chinese Hamlet, whose cries of injustice remain unheard until he takes justice into his own hands. Through Dahai, Jia speaks most directly to the state of Chinese society, and Wu Jiang’s tortured eyes and chubby face serve as the perfect vehicle for Jia’s message.
Often, feature films that knit together disparate stories fall flat. They try too hard to connect all the story lines, or else they fail to feel whole. A Touch of Sin shows us how this kind of film is meant to be. A light hand traces each story together with illustrations of a broken society, teetering between tradition and a new capitalistic drive. Jia’s latest film, in other words, is a masterful tableau of modern China.