Delicate, scholarly and sometimes aggravatingly opaque, Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s socially conscious films haven’t always travelled well, despite being a fixture at international festivals. (His last effort, the 2010 documentary I Wish I Knew, didn’t even get distribution in the UK.) On paper, the racily titled A Touch of Sin (Um Toque de Pecado) promises something a little more commercial from Jia. For starters, he improbably claims that martial arts movies, particularly those by late wuxia master King Hu, were his chief inspiration this time round.
Still, anyone expecting some kind of all-kicking, all-boxing extravaganza will swiftly learn otherwise minutes into this lengthy, ruminative study of the everyday violence pervading contemporary Chinese society. Saying that, his liberally bloodstained new movie should still come as a shock to the director’s regular admirers, as the film punctuates its blunt sociopolitical commentary with bouts of gruelling carnage in the Takashi Miike vein. These genre flirtations don’t exactly come naturally to the director: one driven-to-the-brink character clutches a knife in her fist with stiff unfamiliarity, and Jia shifts tonal gears just as mechanically. If the final effect is somewhat less nuanced than his previous work, it’s a good deal more vigorous.
But if Jia’s films often feel like they’re withholding their subtext from viewers outside China, A Touch of Sin is no exception. Its four notionally linked, occasionally outlandish narratives are actually all pulled from recent headline-making cases in the country: a laid-off miner seeks to level the score with those who cost him his job; a migrant worker discovers the possibility of a gun; a spa receptionist (Jia’s wife and muse, Zhao Tao, giving the film’s most vivid performance) goes off the deep end after being assaulted by a client; an itinerant teenage factory worker seeks a drastic escape route from his humdrum existence.
Only the woman’s story is diverting in isolation; interest in the men derives chiefly from our curiosity about how they connect, if indeed they do. Every vignette, meanwhile, takes place in a different region of the country, each one more bleak and beautifully shot than the last. It’s travelogue cinema for the dissolute and gravely disenfranchised.