Four stories, four graphically violent ends, one all encompassing story
At its very basic, A Touch of Sin is about violence and what can drive people to commit such heinous acts.However, when award winning director Jia Zhangke is at the helm, you know that there is more to it than that. Indeed the whole film is veiled in allegory (some might argue not so veiled) about how the vast economic boom that has hit China in the last few years has divided the country and as capitalism does, the disparity between the rich and the poor becomes ever more gaping. And to illustrate this, Zhangke takes four tales and forges a look at desperation and despair where, according to him, at least, the only outcome is a violent act.The four stories have little or no linking between them (save the first two), this means that each ‘chapter’ is separate and distinct, and creates an almost disjointed flow to the piece – I’d prefer to have seen much more integration through the plots which might have allowed an easier transition, because as it is, one stops, another starts and it is either jarring or discombobulating, especially considering each act ends so abruptly with its violent climax. Also the film never builds to any sort of climax, each ‘chapter’ contains its own; and while the final vignette tries valiantly to tie everything together, it unfortunately comes off as a bit of a damp squib; but I did like the final shot which kind of makes you look at yourself.
Each tale was inspired and scripted from real life events (reportedly taken from social media as the state tends to hush up such antics) and tells of how it’s protagonist is forced into a corner; but each and every one is an exercise in despair. The film starts off with the protagonist of the second tale murdering, in graphic cold blood, three street thugs on his travelling through a northern province of China, which ties these two stories together in a way the rest of the film ignores. He passes by Dahai an impoverished miner who is bitter that his livelihood and village are being ignored by the promises made by those in charge, particularly the village chief and the mine owner, both of whom gave their word that the sale of the mine and its profits would go back to the workers – none of which has happened, but have instead grown fat themselves. Dahai takes it upon himself to stand up for what is right and demand justice by inciting discontent within the village and taking his concerns to central government. When he is beaten and publicly humiliated he decides to take matters into his own hands with brutal and shockingly graphic shotgun revenge.
This first section is the most successful in what Zhangke is trying to achieve, the disparity between the rich and the poor, how the under-privileged are being treated and that the country is heading towards disaster if something isn’t done. He fills his frame with stark imagery and allegorical pictures that hammer home the message without a lengthy and protracted timescale. If he had stopped there, the film would have been so much better. But we have hardly scratched the two hour fifteen minute runtime, with the rest of the flick telling much the same story though from very different characters. And it is perhaps here that the biggest problem for the film lies.
Through different characters and situations, Zhangke is essentially telling the same story four times. His philosophy of taking long takes, expressing mood though vision is well known and there is plenty on show here, and that is also an issue – there is too much on show, the film can be perceived to simply drag along. Yes once the sudden acts of violence happen they, due to the deliberate pacing, are shocking and fast (as in real life) but there is not enough to keep the momentum up, especially as once one act is over, you are onto another set of characters, needing another build up.
The second story, the shortest, follows the character we saw at the top of the film, a mercenary whose outlook on life is bleak and, even though he has an extended family, wants nothing to do with them as he only seems to feel when holding his loaded .45. Possibly the least successful story, as in this story there is not enough motivation behind the heinous acts he commits.
The third instalment, the longest, is the most depressing of all, and tells of a sauna receptionist who is in a long term affair with a married man. Their relationship is doomed, and after she is attacked by the man’s wife and son’s, she knows she is on a road to nowhere. She is then badgered by a rich businessman in the most ghastly fashion (containing the single most obvious shot in the film – being beaten up by a wad of money – in a horribly long and drawn-out scene that never seems to end) as he wants her to prostitute herself to him and his friend. It ends extremely badly for him as our receptionist turns into ‘Lady Vengeance’ with a pocket knife.
There is no denying Zhangke’s talent; his trademark style is all over this picture
The final story is slightly different it its outcome as the violence is inward rather than out and tells the story of a young man who is accused of causing an industrial accident (the boss informs him that ‘small chat’ is not permitted during work hours, thus the accident was his fault, and all his wages will have to go to the injured party until he is back at work) so he goes on the run to seek fortune elsewhere. He ends up in a high class brothel as a waiter, but finds it hard to deal with or make lasting friendships due to what the work it entails.
This scene contains another obvious scene where a parade of prostitutes march in front of the wealthy clients dressed in (sexy) communist army outfits. Unable to fit in there, or back where he came from, or in the medial ‘beehive’ living accommodations afforded to the workers in his third choice of exploitation job (that of a lowly factory worker), with no money and a mother wanting what he has; one day he has had enough and, once again in graphic detail, it all ends in violence.
There is no denying Zhangke’s talent; his trademark style is all over this picture. But what sets this picture apart from his earlier output is his attempt at genre output, i.e. the violence that proliferates at the climax of each story. It starts off, almost, like a modern-day western, and even has hints of a Tarantino-esque approach to the bloodletting. But in trying to meld these two styles something gets lost; the drawn-out establishing scene do not contain quite enough backstory to justify the characters actions as they spend so much time establishing the depressing mood, thus the film’s pacing tends to drag; and then bang – a huge graphic violent act.
One could argue that is the entire point, a shocking wake up call to make you sit up and take notice, but for a modern audience outside of the ‘critic’s’ (or Cannes) circle many may find that it is takes too long to get there and then repeats what it wants to say, and again, taking too long to do so. And so, whilst there is much to commend, there are the flaws to consider. Personally, I think, the highs outweigh the lows and any film that has you wincing at the violence ought to be given a fair trial.
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