Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: A Touch of Sin

Image courtesy of Koch Lorber Films
Jia Zhang-ke's "A Touch of Sin" is a brutal and unsettling omnibus film that tells four stories of the links between violence and materialism in modern day China.

For those unfamiliar with Zhang-ke's work, the director is one of the nation's most lauded filmmakers, whose "Platform," "Unknown Pleasures" and "Still Life" comment on globalization and alienation in the China of the 21st century, often employing long takes and a documentary style approach to filmmaking.

"A Touch of Sin" marks a notable change of pace for the filmmaker, first because of the relentless violence included in its four chapters, but also because of its stylized photography and occasional drift into the realms of the surreal.

In the first - and most powerful - chapter, a man named Dahai (Wu Jiang) is fed up with the village chief and local boss, who have obtained wealth through selling off collective property for which the villagers have not seen a penny. Dahai confronts the authorities, threatening to expose them, but is mostly written off as the village fool - that is, until he is attacked violently by one of the local boss' goons.

In a startling turn of events, Dahai removes a shotgun from his closet and enacts his revenge. Although the plot of this first sequence may sound like your standard Hollywood revenge fantasy, the violence is approached from a realist standpoint, making it all the more disturbing.

In a second - and not as successful - tale, a young man named Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) returns to his home along the Three Gorges region after having gunned down three boys who attempted to rob him. His family acts distant, very possibly because they figure he is involved in some shady dealings.

Zhou putters around, spending time with his son and wife before engaging in the film's second shocking act of violence that includes a robbery.

We move on to the third - and second best - of the stories in which a young sauna receptionist named Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao, Zhang-ke's wife) carries on a relationship with a married man, is attacked by that man's wife and then enacts her revenge against a group of unruly men at her sauna.

This sequence has its share of surrealistic moments, including a dreamy sequence in a van during which a woman's feet are surrounded by snakes. Xiao Yu's revenge is carried out during a scene that could have been found in one of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films and, very possibly, pays homage to King Hu's kung fu classic "A Touch of Zen," after which Zhang-ke may have titled his own picture.

The fourth story held my interest, but it may be the weakest. It involves a young man who become involved with a teenage girl who works in a brothel after having fled the factory at which he worked. At moments, this sequence is powerful, but a bit inconclusive.

Zhang-ke ends his picture with a scene during which one of the film's characters watches a Chinese opera on a street and the camera cuts to a crowd of civilians as a character in the opera discusses the notion of sin. Zhang-ke's latest may not be his best, but it still has an urgency in its portrayal of characters trapped in a nation that the director hints may be changing for the worse.

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