In two decades of moviemaking, China’s Jia Zhangke has laid bare the damage — environmental, social, personal — of his country’s explosive growth, telling stories of displacement with an obliquely poetic sense of outrage. With his latest effort, the implied violence bubbles over. “A Touch of Sin” is a blood-spattered film from a normally mild-mannered director, a disturbed and disturbing vision of a culture rapaciously feeding on itself.
As if to underscore the despair, the movie’s four vignettes are taken from real Chinese news items from recent years. They’re the stuff of tabloid headlines and breaking news bulletins: A man on a rampage with a shotgun, a woman taking a knife to an attacker, a youthful suicide, a passionless career criminal. Yet “A Touch of Sin” lets the disasters play out against the backdrop of a larger cataclysm, that of a civilization where profit, “progress,” and government-sponsored upheaval have obliterated centuries-old social contracts. In their absence, Jia suggests, there’s nowhere to go but hell.
It’s a movie full of loners, starting with Dahei (Jiang Wu), the small-town malcontent who won’t shut up about the corruption of his village bosses. Everyone else knows to keep their heads down and their opinions to themselves, which only makes Dahei squawk louder about the leaders who have sold the town’s coal mine to outside interests and are living fat on the proceeds. Push comes to shove and for a brief spasm “A Touch of Sin” turns into a gory civic vigilante film, with little doubt as to where the filmmaker stands. How on earth did this movie get past China’s state censors?
The second vignette, about a poker-faced migrant worker (Wang Baoqiang) whose “work” is revealed to be predatory in the extreme, functions better as metaphor than as drama. But the metaphor still stings in a country where 260 million people have been uprooted by urbanization and travel thousands of miles to earn a living. The film’s third section examines a woman’s role in a society where everything is for sale, and if it isn’t, men go ahead and grab it anyway. The director’s actress wife, Zhao Tao, is increasingly distressed and very touching as a woman in a dead-end affair with a married man; this section, too, ends in a carnage that appalls even as you secretly cheer it on.
The final sequence, about a teenage boy (Luo Lanshan) who makes the mistake of falling in love with a sex worker (Li Meng) at a pleasure house for the new Chinese oligarchy, could have used a more dynamic lead actor (Luo is a nonprofessional). And by this point in the movie the sense of defeat has become crushing. Earlier Jia films like “Still Life” (2006) and “The World” (2004) were delicate art-house masterpieces that urged a viewer to read between the lines; “A Touch of Sin,” by contrast, makes its points out loud, sometimes awkwardly. The time for poetry is past, the director seems to say, as his camera looks deep into the eyes of the mob in the film’s final image. The chaos may be just be getting started.