Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Touch of Sin - Review

In one particular moment of disenchanted flirting, a woman scrolls through a pink iPad, reading off news stories to her colleague. The first story involves a village chief who was arrested and found to have possession of 20 Louis Vuitton bags. She asks him if he wishes to leave an online comment. All he has to say about this grossly commercial matter is three letters: WTF. She reads off a second story and he again repeats his simple answer. A better response for this lowly waiter is to flip the letters' order, creating a palindrome, so he can greatly express the giant middle finger he's forever giving the worldly change of his home country.

A TOUCH OF SIN, which won the Best Screenplay award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, continues Chinese director Jia Zhangke's signature display of the ennui of modern China. Culling from apparent real-life incidents and journeying the camera to four contrasting areas, the movie showcases the lives of four individuals whose permanent state of shock from all of the corruption and moral degeneration eventually leads them to harsh violence. The first story involves Dahai, a loudmouthed, bullying miner who's the only one of his village brave enough to dare speak against the village chief and the company owner about their deceptive promises. Later, there's a sauna receptionist who experiences her own personal free-fall when her melancholic affair with a married man collides with the stigmatization of being a woman. At very end, the film covers a young hopeful who bounces from job to job, unable to be more than a servant or finally run away into a place of bliss. The character introduced first but is covered secondly, a wandering sociopath who can only express emotion through his handgun, is the only lead who makes brief encounters with the other participants or with a story element of theirs.

Zhangke often supplements the plots with appearances of a multitude of animals. Whether it is a horse, a duck, a snake, or fish, the creatures are explicitly added to bubble up the inner turmoil of a character's plight, a technique that Eisenstein fans will favor yet is way too creaky for current opinion. The only thing that can match this blatancy of metaphors is the ending, which sours the bite of the picture and leaves the audience in place but keeps their eyes rolling. Zhangke also includes some odd directional picks when it comes to some of the slaughter. Questionable CGI makes a couple moments of tragedy a bit laughable and in the specific case of one major murder, the destructive act is treated like a martial arts fight.

Despite these problems, A TOUCH OF SIN is impressively shot, often held for long periods of time so your heart beats like a heavy metal drum set. Zhangke willingly plays with the viewer's expectations; one minute he's dropping subplots or advancing unseen developments, the next he forgoes the dramatic use of Chekov's gun. It's also very damning in its critiques, particularly in several jaw-dropping sequences that trivialize the influence of Communism in China today, as being nothing more than window dressing for sleazily institutionalized practices. If you're expecting this to be a complete bloodbath, you'll be slightly disappointed but hopefully intrigued by the film's sweeping brushes of scathing social attacks.


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