Cannes is a place for shocks, jolts and surprises. This change of artistic direction from Chinese film-maker Jia Zhang-ke offers plenty. He has been known until this moment for an intensely considered, quiet documentary realism — particularly in the 2006 movie Still Life, about communities preparing to be drowned in the service of China’s Three Gorges hydro-electric Dam. So this brash, daring and often ultraviolent movie is atypical to say the least, avowedly inspired by the wuxia martial arts films of King Hu, but it has clear debts to Tarantino’s riffs on this same genre, and to Sergio Leone. The idea of Jia Zhang-ke making his own Pulp Fiction or A Fistful of Dollars (or rather yen) might before now have seemed fanciful. But that is what he has done — or almost.
In fact, A Touch of Sin eventually moves back to the calmer, realist cinematic language more associated with this director in its final act. And the film is in any case not simply a racy adventure in exploitation, but an angry, painful, satirical lunge into what the director clearly sees as the dark heart of modern China, and a real attempt to represent this to audiences elsewhere in the world. He sees China as a globalised economic power player suffering a new and violent Cultural Revolution of money-worship in which a cronyist elite has become super-rich in the liquidation of state assets, creating poisonous envy in the dispossessed who hear all about others’ wealth from the internet, and are supposed to gossip aspirationally about it on their mobile phones. A key scene in the film shows someone brooding over Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
It is a fractured and divided story, like shards of a shattered mirror. Different strands and characters and stories emerge, tangentially concerned with each other. Jia has taken his plotlines from newspapers, violent stories of criminal despair, and by meshing them together, these tales, often involving guns, build up a picture of China as a desolate Wild West of lawless violence and cynicism. A worker erupts with anger at how the mine-chief has somehow been able to afford a sports car and to lease a private plane. Three brothers coming back to their hometown for their mother’s birthday reveal themselves to be deeply unhappy in various ways, and the unhappiness somehow always manifests itself in violence. Two have handguns: one casually slays three guys who have attempted to rob him on the road. Another, who has been telling his wife he has been travelling the country looking for work, reveals himself to be an ice-cool armed robber who doesn’t scruple to murder women in cold blood for their expensive designer bags. Another is having an affair with a sauna receptionist (played by Jia’s longtime leading actor Zhao Tao) and this too ends in a bloody confrontation.
Only in the final section does this arguably overlong movie calm down a little: spinning off into the story of a young man who finds work as a waiter in a bizarre brothel-hostess club for wealthy plutocrats and foreigners, the girls being ironically dressed in skimpy outfits as the soldiers and workers of the Maoist past. But the violence hangs over the film like a haze: gunshot wounds to the face, ugly and very real-looking fistfights.
This is a bitter, jagged, disaffected drama, pessimistic about China, pessimistic about the whole world. One characters asks another if he ever feels like travelling abroad. “Why would I?” he replies. “Everywhere is broke. Foreigners come here now.” Jia Zhang-ke’s movie gives us a brutal unwelcome.
A Touch of Sin by Jia Zhang-Ke (view the trailer)