Jia Zhangke deservedly won best screenplay honours at the Cannes Festival in May for A Touch of Sin, an intricately plotted tetraptych about the nasty and brutish conditions of life in contemporary China.
For most viewers, though, the subtleties in Jia’s bob-and-weave narrative will take second place to the blood and gore he puts up on the screen. People are mad as hell in this film, and the protagonists in each of its four sub-sets – a miner, a migrant worker, a receptionist at a spa, a factory worker – are driven, by either despair or existential recklessness, to commit acts of destruction against others and themselves.
If the broad strokes of the four stories seem familiar, it’s because they are: Jia has unabashedly torn his narrative from headline-making stories of the past five or six years, imbuing A Touch of Sin’s artful condemnation of the soulless Chinese state capitalism with a topicality that’s both sobering and bracing.
While rife with references to Chinese street opera and martial-arts cinema, A Touch of Sin also feels very American, like a Cormac McCarthy novel (think Blood Meridian and The Road), Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the Springsteen of Darkness on the Edge of Town; similarly, the tableaus lensed by ace cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai evoke the tensions of the personal and the impersonal you find in the photographs of Jeff Wall, Joel Sternfeld and Edward Burtynsky.
All four stories are tragedies of the common man or woman, set in different regions of China. In the first, Dahai, a blunt-spoken former miner (played by Jiang Wu), shotgun in hand, rebels against the greed and corruption of the local village chief and his mine-owning, Maserati-driving crony.
Earlier in the film, Dahai briefly crosses motorbike paths with Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) shortly after Zhou, enroute to his mother’s 70th birthday party and a brief reunion with his wife and young son, has shot and killed three axe-wielding robbers on the highway. Zhou’s saga forms the heart of the second story; he’s a bandit, too – a sort of pistol-packing Chinese Baby Face Nelson in a Chicago Bulls tuque, drifting around the country, stealing from (and murdering) the nouveau riche, then sending the proceeds home.
The third stars Jia’s wife Zhao Tao as Zheng Xiaoyu, a sauna/spa receptionist who’s been waiting far too long for her lover (and likely former client) to divorce his wife. Events take a murderous turn at the spa when she rebuffs the sexual advances of a client who beats her with a fat wad of yuans.
Jia’s last yarn, perhaps the most poignant in the omnibus, traces the decline and fall of a sweet-faced, destitute worker (Luo Lanshan) as he flits from one alienating job to another, including a stint as a waiter in a brothel/club where he tries to woo one of the prostitutes.
Melodramatic to be sure, but Jia grounds it with all sorts of textures, close observation and attention to gesture. As a result, you have a compulsively watchable hybrid of naturalism and neo-Peckinpah splatter, with deftly deployed flourishes of the folkloric and the surreal. Epic and intimate, A Touch of Sin finally feels as big and complex, as contradictory and sad as, well, China.