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A Touch of Sin: A scathing portrait of China’s economic boom

A Touch of Sin consists of four segments, each based on a recent Chinese event that ended in violence.

There was buzz on Chinese social media earlier this week when the trailer for Jia Zhangke's new competition film, A Touch of Sin, was released on Youkou, China's version of YouTube. Could such a film ever get past the censors?

The film is an exercise in social criticism, exploring torn-from-the-headlines tales of corruption, prostitution and violent crime. It can easily be interpreted as a scathing portrait of China's economic boom.

It's hard not to see the full-length feature film, which showed Friday in Cannes, as an indictment of a social system where only money matters, and human dignity gets trampled at every turn. Ron Mann, whose picked it up for Canada, said it "may be the most political film at the festival."

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Cinephiles have idolized the 43-year-old Jia (Platform, The World, Still Life) as one of the leading art-house directors of the past decade, for his contemplative melancholic studies of contemporary life. At times, A Touch of Sin is as spectacularly pulpy as a Quentin Tarantino movie.

The movie consists of four segments, each based on a recent Chinese event that ended in violence. In one, the mayor of a town promises to share the profits of a mine but keeps them for himself. One angry shareholder confronts him and eventually decides to let his shotgun do the talking. A receptionist at a massage parlour, after being dumped by her married lover, reaches the breaking point and guts a sexually aggressive client with a fruit knife. A prostitute works at a brothel for rich businessmen and foreigners where the women parade before the clients in sexy military uniforms. Other scenes include footage of a 2011 train crash that led to charges of railroad mismanagement and the suicides of sweatshop workers.

Jia, who makes no secret of his concerns about the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor in China, said the form of his movie followed his impressions that too many people are reaching the boiling point.

"What I have observed is that there is this trend recently in China toward individuals doing acts of extreme violence. It made me very worried. It's the kind of thing you associate with the old days of the emperors, and perhaps people's motives and frustrations today aren't that different than they were then. That's why I tried to make a kind of contemporary martial arts film," Jia said.

Over the years, Jia, who began as an underground filmmaker, has had ongoing battles with the Chinese censors. He scrapped a film about a man's sex life because of anti-pornography laws and abandoned a historical spy film about the Communists and the Kuomintang because the censor board insisted that the Communist spies be portrayed as "superheroes," he told a Shanghai film conference in 2011.

Of course, a Cannes premiere is no guarantee the film won't get banned: It happened to Lou Ye's 2006 Cannes competition film, Summer Palace. But Jia's film has a couple of things in his favour. A Touch of Sin (the title alludes to a 1971 martial arts film, A Touch of Zen) is co-produced by Jia's production company and the state-backed studio, Shanghai Film Group, which virtually assures its release.

At yesterday's press conference, Jia seemed confident his film will be seen by its home audience: "The film has been approved by the censor board and we hope it will be released in autumn."

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In China, where Django Unchained, Skyfall and Cloud Atlas were all recently shown with minor cuts, perhaps officials are finally ready for their homegrown brand of vigilante payback.


The Past

  • Directed by Asghar Farhadi
  • Starring Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa and Tahar Rahim

Moving from his native Iran to France, the Oscar-winning director of A Separation hasn't lost a beat in another impeccably crafted film about another domestic crisis. This one suggests an Ibsen play set in modern, immigrant-filled Paris.

Ahmad (Mosaffa) arrives in France from Tehran after four years, to divorce his wife, Marie (The Artist's Bérénice Bejo), at her request. In a series of revelations that unfold with the intricacy of a sort of narrative dance of the seven veils, Ahmad discovers a family of complex dysfunction. It starts with 16-year-old Lucie (Pauline Burlet), a daughter from a previous marriage; she is vehemently opposed to Marie's new beau, Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose comatose wife lies in hospital.

An extensive rehearsal period and long shoot have assured that the performances here, including those of children, feel note-perfect. Still, by the end the pile-on of revelations gets exhausting. And there really does seem to be a surfeit of unstable women.

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For writing, acting and visual care, though, The Past is easily the festival's standout from among its first half-dozen films.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More


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