Jia Zhangke is almost bulletproof. He’s attained a status akin to Wong Kar-wai or Michael Haneke wherein critics fall all over themselves to fawn over the brilliance and daring of their Art and anyone who disagrees is a Hollywoodised philistine. What many people — writers, academics, occasionally filmgoers — forget is that movies are the Shakespeare of our time: mass entertainments that may have a deep message for those seeking it. The key there is “mass”, and if no one’s seeing the work, the message is lost. Entertainments by definition demand engagement with their audience and one of the quickest ways to disengage with an audience is to bore them. Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is boring.
Scads of filmmakers have made careers out of zeroing in on a single theme or sandbox to play in. Martin Scorsese and Takeshi Kitano are at their best when they’re navigating the crime world. Steven Spielberg really needs to stick to the speculative genres. Jia’s wheelhouse is the clash between China’s varying factions — history and modernity, power and voicelessness, wealth and poverty. He’s been doing it since his first film, Xiao Wu, and he’s honed his craft with Unknown Pleasures, The World and Still Life. Jia’s politics and attitudes are so entrenched in his work that his arguments have become rote and his rage has been muted. The damage wrought by the Three Gorges Dam can only be visualised and explored so many times before it’s reduced to, “Oh, this again.” Jia’s diatribes aren’t invalid or lacking currency, but the vehicle is rickety.
And so A Touch of Sin is a little wuxia, a little crime thriller, a little noir — adding up to a whole lot of nothing. Allegedly inspired by King Hu’s epic A Touch of Zen (ever so faintly) and a handful of tabloid news stories the director stumbled upon on some blogs (the greatest source of truth the world has ever known) Jia stitches together four loosely connected episodes about corruption, influence and violent rage and the little people crushed beneath them.
The film starts with drifter Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang, Blind Shaft) motorbiking down a lonely stretch of Shanxi highway. When three petty gangsters ambush him and demand money, he calmly shoots each one with a concealed handgun and drives away. Down the road in town, bitter miner Dahai (Jiang Wu, Shower, To Live) is kicking up trouble for the anticipated visit of mine’s CEO — who’s jetting in on a private plane. Dahai wants the town’s bookkeeper to admit to accounting fraud, and he really wants the boss to answer for failing to keep his profit-sharing promises. The public taunting gets him a beat down, to which he responds to with a rifle and a shooting spree.
The focus then shifts back to Zhou, who moseys into Chongqing for his mother’s birthday and decides the best way to get rich is not to go work in Guangzhou but to commit a bold daytime robbery of a rich local woman leaving the bank (with pile of cash of course). Jia then turns his attention on sauna receptionist Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao, the Gena Rowlands to Jia’s John Cassavetes without the wedding ring), who demands her married lover make a choice and ends up slicing and dicing an overbearing john who doesn’t get that she is, in fact, just a receptionist. Sin comes to rest in Dongguan, where factory worker Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) has fled after an accident resulted in him being forced to forfeit his salary for an undisclosed amount of time to his injured co-worker (because, China labour practices). A stint at a tacky “upscale” brothel is followed by another factory gig before the co-worker finds him and a leap from the staff dormitory balcony.
Jia is blessed with an ace cinematographer in regular collaborator Yu Lik-wai (he worked on Hong Kong director Pang Ho-cheung’s gruesome satire Dream Home), and so — as is often the case with Jia — there is a certain visual pithiness to the film that frequently works better than the narrative. Yu effortlessly captures the soul-sucking banality of the ironically named factory dorms, the incentivised, enthusiastic greeting of a CEO and the hierarchy among “comrades” that has quickly emerged in cash-centric contemporary China. When the sauna john refuses to accept Xiao Yu’s rejection based on job description he hits her across the face again and again, mirroring a farmer flogging his horse in Shanxi (both pay a stiff price for their arrogance).
But those fleeting images alone can’t save A Touch of Sin from its plodding pace, thematic and tonal familiarity (Jia drops back into more Jia-ish patterns in the final act) and only a half-assed grasp on the crime genre he’s trying to invoke (he channels the wuxia traditions better). The set-ups for the characters’ violent outbursts are some of the clumsiest to hit screens in a long time (“Sir, you can’t take this fruit knife on the train.”) and though it’s admirable to see a filmmaker step outside his or her comfort zone, Jia isn’t going to make anyone forget the hideous grace found in the best of Quentin Tarantino or Miike Takashi. Jia loyalists are sure to holler, “Masterpiece!” but non-believers and newcomers will be left cold — if they stay awake.