The anthology film, a format favoured especially by the horror genre, seems bound by two rules: to consist of slight or superficial stories, and to be undone by one weak story. Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin breaks the first rule and stumbles with the second. It doesn’t so much have one weak story as a diminishing cumulative quality, which is a shame considering the high note it starts on, yet is probably a consequence of such a brilliant first act.
For a while questions were raised as to whether the film would even get a domestic release in China, considering it deals with corruption on every level of Chinese society, and each story is derived from true events brought to light through democratic, online media rather than state-sanctioned news sources. There has to date been little to no explicit censoring of it in the country it so uncompromisingly examines (rumoured to be because China’s president is a fan of Jia Zhangke’s work), though neither has it been exhibited.
The opening scene has been the most discussed; featuring three staccato shootings, an explosion and a stylised shot of an overturned crashed apple truck, it could have had its origins in a substance-free Tarantino film. In fact, with its brutal pockets of violence, multi-faceted narrative approach and wuxia-referencing title it could come across as a rip-off. The fact is A Touch of Sin is the film QT could make if he had a social conscience rather than a questionable penchant for adolescent fixations.
Serving as a cold open, the scene is never explicitly called back to, though two of the characters recur and implications and motives can be drawn from its disparate elements. From there we enter into the first story, following Dahai’s (the monolithic Jiang Wu) struggle to hold the town chief and his boss to account for profiting from the same of a collectively owned mine.
He finds no fight in nor support from his fellow citizens (in fact when not apathy, he faces outright scorn and mocking derision) and this silence and lack of solidarity is regarded by the film as much – if not more – of a violation against a person, a community and a nation as the financially exploitative figures in power. Ultimately he is forced into the avenue of physical retribution, and so it follows in the disparate, succeeding three stories.
Here in its application of violence A Touch of Sin really stands tall. Undoubtedly the violence is, to a degree, stylised, but it never feels exploitative, or ignorant to consequences. Not since the now decade-old Vengeance Trilogy have the rippling and inevitable pleasures and penalties of violent action or revenge deeply explored so deeply and stylishly.
Additionally, due to the anthology nature of …Sin, multiple permutations of this theme result in a more rounded though sometimes overwhelming work. The dense nature of …Sin though ensures it will be a rewarding rewatch in the years to come. If given a chance though, it lingers in the mind and because a far more commendable film in retrospect.
Overall it’s an emotionally engaging, aesthetically striking film, though the substantial political aspect may make this a cumbersome watch for someone not directly invested in or up to date on the social, economic and political interactions of China. It’s important, significant, beautiful, tautly yet spaciously written, phenomenally acted and, come December, it’ll be one of the standouts of the year.