A blistering fictionalized tale straight out of China, “A Touch of Sin” is at once monumental and human scale. A story of lives rocked by violence, it has the urgency of a screaming headline, but one inscribed with visual lyricism, emotional weight and a belief in individual rights.
You can feel the conviction of its director, Jia Zhang-Ke — one of the few filmmakers who weighs the impact of social and political shifts on people — in every shot.
In “A Touch of Sin,” the world isn’t an amorphous backdrop, pretty scenery for private dramas, it is a stage on which men and women struggle to fulfill basic moral obligations, including recognizing one another’s humanity.
Divided into four main sections, each centered on a different character, the movie opens near a northern town where a man in a green army coat, Dahai (an imposing Jiang Wu), has started a solitary campaign against the village chief and the local boss, who have grown rich selling collective property.
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Most of the villagers turn away from Dahai and his protests, seemingly resigned to what some might be called fate. Jia, however, is interested in forces beyond the providential. What concerns him are people who, caught in the jaws of historical change, are battered, exploited and dehumanized by others who now value only things.
Dahai’s story is followed by that of Zhou San (the quietly chilling Wang Baoqiang). He’s returning to his home in Chongqing.
Here, high-rises pierce the hazy sky and peasants grow vegetables on riverbanks. No one seems happy to see Zhou San
. There’s menace in his every gesture, but what his family doesn’t know is that he has recently gunned down three men.
The third section follows a woman, Xiao Yu, a sauna receptionist (played by Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and frequent star) who is having an affair with a married man. Her story opens soon before she gives her lover an ultimatum; in return, he gives her a knife that will find its mark. Later, she unknowingly follows the same footsteps as the character in the final section, a young man, Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), who’s spiraling into debt and despair.
“A Touch of Sin” builds with implacable tension and urgency. This, Jia seems to be saying, is happening right here, right now. The eruptions of violence add to the intensity as do other filmmaking choices.
Jia has long blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction through his use of digital cinematography, which helps convey a sense of documentarylike immediacy and through real locations and nonprofessional performers working alongside trained actors. In his movies, characters feel as if they live in a world that’s so rapidly changing, so unsettled and destabilizing, that it seems the very ground under them is collapsing along with innumerable social, political and aesthetic frameworks.