TIAN ZHU DING (A Touch of Sin)

One of the most attentive and inspired chroniclers of modern China, Jia Zhang-ke's look at the evolving social issues of the "Middle Kingdom" hits new and more disturbing heights, in a sprawling compendium of tales of violence in the contemporary provincial areas of a country where progress and money have taken over simple human dignity. Allegedly inspired by classic martial arts films but unmistakably Mr. Jia's in style and mood, A Touch of Sin is based on actual events that took place in China and consists of four criss-crossing vignettes ripped from the headlines about four working-class people struggling to make ends meet and rise above their exploited nature - realising that society will not move a muscle to defend them.

     Dahai (Jiang Wu) is incensed that his village has been taken over by greedy moneymen who funnel the profits to their own pockets; San'er (Wang Baoqiang) finds there's much power involved in brandishing a gun; Xiaoyiu (Zhao Tao) is harassed by both the wife of her married lover and by the customers of the sauna she works in as a receptionist; Yiaohui (Luo Lanshan) realises his future is merely switching between two low-paying factory jobs.

     Mr. Jia's work has always been extremely attentive to mood and character, and the way he weaves fiction and documentary into his films has helped him carve a unique place in contemporary cinema; the more straight-forward episodic nature of A Touch of Sin is in no way a departure for him, but their relay structure, while a welcome relief from the fad of intercut mosaic films that ought surely to have been outlawed by now, raises other issues. The relentless bleakness of the content, its compassionate but never condescending look into the penny-pinching, daily bullying and humiliation these people go through, can suggest this is too much of a message film, presenting far too bluntly the need for compassion and humanity in a society convulsed by consumer wealth and moral injustice than in previous, great films by Mr. Jia such as I Wish I Knew or The World. And yet, that may be also be due to the film's structure and length - by the time we reach the last and bleakest of the four tales and the supposedly hopeful coda of an ever-remaining faith in the future, it may all seem like overkill, regardless of A Touch of Sin being of a piece with everything else the director has made so far.

     The film does maintain his observational look at people, his almost effortless magic in recognising the beauty of small moments as well as the refusal to let his characters become mere archetypes or symbols and exist as fully rounded, three-dimensional people, with DP Yu Lik Wai's crystal-clear framing of these people and their surroundings always explaining what's at stake here. Reckoned by some observers as an attempt to engage more deeply and directly with the issues of contemporary China - and stumbling on the local authorities' unwillingness to allow a local release - A Touch of Sin may not be one of Mr. Jia's masterpieces, but despite any doubts is yet another excellent film from one of the finest filmmakers in the world right now.

Cast: Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan
Director and screenwriter: Jia Zhang-ke
Cinematography: Yu Lik Wai  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Lim Giong
Art director: Liu Weixin
Costumes: Wang Tao
Editors: Lin Xudong, Matthieu Laclau
Producer: Shozo Ichiyama  (Xtream Pictures, Office Kitano and Shanghai Film Group Corporation in association with Shanxi Film Group, Bandai Visual and Bitters End)
China/Japan, 2013, 130 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, November 28th 2013


Popular Posts