Follows four characters in difference provinces of China. A Touch of Sin is a reflection of an economic giant slowly being eroded by violence.
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Try as I might, I cannot recall an auteur consecrated as hastily as China’s Jia Zhangke—who from the Berlin premiere of his 1997 debut Pickpocket, rose seemingly without trace, to become not only the leading mainland director of his (Sixth) generation, but also one of the most highly-regarded filmmakers in the world.
obvious almost to the point of banality
There have been retrospectives and awards (a Gold Lion at Venice in 2006 for Still Life, and now a best screenplay award at this year’s Cannes, for this film). There has been fervent praise from peers—among them, Martin Scorsese—and from critics. More than once, the phrase 'most important living director’ has been used. It is, in other words, a lonely time to be a Jia Zhangke sceptic.
He’s undoubtedly talented: an astringent social critic disguised as a lockstep formalist. Nevertheless, I remain slightly unconvinced by claims of his genius. To me, he’s Hou Hsiao Hsien without that filmmaker’s poetry or profundity, the deep, resonant chords struck in classics like City of Sadness or The Flowers of Shanghai. There’s a fluency to Hou’s work that often eludes Jia, a sense that his method of storytelling, his visual aesthetic, could be nothing other than what it is; much of Jia’s output, by comparison, seems mannered and imitative. (Tellingly, Jia has cited the Taiwanese master as a primary influence on his own work.) And while he has undoubted strengths—in particular, his compositional sense, reminiscent of Antonioni—there are also distinct flaws. He can be unsubtle in his storytelling. His pacing often seems protracted for its own sake. Most of his films—even 2004’s The World, which I probably admire most—are at least a half-hour too long.
All of which makes his latest project—and his return to fiction after a number of documentaries—something of a mixed proposition. It’s a sequence of four short stories, each of which was inspired by an actual newspaper report, and set in a different part of China, from his own home province of Shanxi, to Chongqing and Dongguan. Each tale features a protagonist at odds with some entrepreneurial venture; each culminates in an act of extreme violence.
Inevitably, some of these are more effective than others. The first segment, about a mining company employee driven to mass-murder by his boss’s refusal to share his profits with their village, is strong, with a conclusion that recalls—of all things—Michael Winner’s 1967 black comedy I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname. Likewise the third, which stars Jia’s wife Zhao Tao, as a massage sauna receptionist saddled with customers who refuse to accept that she’s not also on offer. The last, meanwhile, set in a high-end brothel called 'The Golden Age’, features the film’s most overt satire, as a succession of whores parade dressed in skimpy Chinese military uniforms, awaiting the caresses of gamblers from Macau and cashed-up laowai.
Many in Cannes took this to represent a neat lesson on the virtues of provenance, noting that, since the production was partly funded by the production company of Japan’s Takeshi Kitano, Jia had been obliged to adopt some of his colleague’s stylistic preoccupations. Certainly, with its many shootings and stabbings, its grand guignol bloodshed, this is at least as violent as recent Kitano outings like Outrage Beyond and Brother.
But in fact, Jia has enjoyed a partnership with Office Kitano since they co-produced his breakthrough feature Platform, back in 2000; whatever fury is here, it’s entirely of his own making. Indeed, far from settling into the role of comfortable elder statesman, Á la his Fifth Generation predecessor Zhang Yimou, Jia is clearly very, very pissed-off indeed about the state of his homeland, and doesn’t mind letting you know it.
It’s handsomely made—and beautifully shot, courtesy of his regular cinematographer Yu Lik Wai, a talented director in his own right. (His 2003 feature All Tomorrow’s Parties is one of the most intriguing mainland films of that decade.) And while it’s refreshing to see the filmmaker extending himself, and staging actual physical action—so many of his recent films having been static, observational affairs—it’s even more fascinating to witness a film fuelled by such deep, undisguised measures of rage.
Yet the point he makes here, again and again—that money corrupts, breaking down social relations—is obvious almost to the point of banality. And the episodic structure he employs actually works against the efficacy of the polemic. In attempting to portray the ubiquity of the problem, he winds up reducing it to a string of minor variations upon the same theme, replete with references to his own earlier work: a fleeting glimpse of the Three Gorges Dam, a travelling theatre company . . .
The latter seemed especially apposite, since, watching, I found myself recalling Platform, which used an unusually elegant structural conceit—the travails of a provincial dance troupe over more than fifteen years—to make many of the same social and cultural points. But I was also reminded of another, more recent mainland entry: Cai Shangjun’s People Mountain People Sea, which premiered in Competition at Venice in 2011, only to vanish from sight. A study of murderous amorality, considered less as a case of individual psychopathy than as a general social condition, it played out amid a no-man’s-land of illegal mines and ruthless bosses, a zone of ceaseless exploitation, where human lives (and loyalties) were cheap. Ironically enough, it was precisely the major work this film tries so hard, yet fails, to be.