A Touch Of Sin, Jia Zhangke’s tragic—and excellent—new film (opening tomorrow at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto), pushes the director’s familiar themes of disillusionment and alienation in contemporary China to brutal new heights. Those familiar with Jia’s past efforts—such as Platform (2000), The World (2004), and Still Life (2006)—will notice its marked departure from the more aesthetically subdued movies that have come to define the writer/director as one of the Sixth Generation’s most significant voices. While it is rooted in a more stylized manner of content and form than the filmmaker is usually known for, it nevertheless expertly builds upon and expands the distinct concerns Jia continues to explore regarding his homeland.
The film is divided into partially-interconnected vignettes that each culminate in an eruption of violence. The first involves a former miner who has been driven to the outer limits of his sanity by the wealthy leaders of his town who have become rich through extortion of the local collectively-owned mine. He tries to speak out against the corruption but is continually ignored (and eventually beaten), and his frustrated humiliation forces him into a vigilant undertaking involving a heavily-powered firearm. The narrative then moves on to a gun-obsessed migrant worker, a mistreated sauna receptionist, and a down-on-his-luck factory employee striving for financial stability as he drifts from job to job.
The shocking climaxes of these tales are punctuated by how they contrast with the patient moods and tones which showcase Jia in his element, but he proves himself equally adept at handling bold new material and it is precisely this juxtaposition that bestows A Touch Of Sin with an affecting and disturbing impact. Jia’s latest is his loudest—and, perhaps, most crucial—statement on the plague of widespread bloodshed and dehumanizing industrialization in his country. He evokes this societal unrest through four stories inspired by the continuing reports of such events in the news, and each character is pushed into a position where acting on brutal impulses seems to be the only way to accomplish anything; indeed, the casualness with which these acts are all committed underline a severe hopelessness for the future.