Jia’s films often deal with politics in China, specifically its increasing materialism after the Cultural Revolution, as well as the threats government and huge corporations pose to the lives of regular, working-class people. They’re personal yet universal, too, filled with sly wit and keen personal observances.
On the surface, “A Touch of Sin” seems different from the larger-scale “Platform” or “The World,” or the more intimate “Unknown Pleasures” and “Still Life.” It’s Jia’s bloodiest and most pointed film, focusing on four separate, but ultimately related, incidents of violence.
The first segment focuses on scowling Dahai (Jiang Wu), forever wearing his old army trenchcoat, who begins speaking out against the corrupt village chief. Unfortunately, his behavior draws unwanted attention.
In the second episode, mysterious, stoic, cold-blooded killer San Zhou (Wang Baoqiang) returns to his small town for his mother’s 70th birthday party.
Xiaoyu (played by Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and muse) is having an affair with a married man in the third segment. She works as a greeter in a red-light district massage parlor, where, one night, her lover’s wife shows up.
Finally, Xiaohui (Luo Lanshan) wanders from job to job until he winds up at an expensive hotel and falls for a beautiful prostitute.
In each story, the primary character reaches a breaking point, resulting in some kind of bloodshed. Yet the outbursts are passionate and human; behavior of the materialists in power is even more chilling.
Oddly, the movie has a final shot similar to Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” — a sea of faces, a community of sad, lost people. The images suggest that, like Americans, these people seek material goods to solve their problems.
But Jia shows that things are not so simple. In one unrelated but connective image, a man mercilessly beats a horse hitched to a cart. The man eventually meets an untimely end, and the horse is shown roaming free, still hauling the cart. It’s a sly, effective idea encapsulating the movie’s themes.
Jia’s films often receive spotty distribution in the U.S. and never have been submitted for consideration for the best foreign-language film Oscar. Don’t miss your chance to see this unique and brilliant film while it’s here.
A Touch of Sin
Starring Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao, Wang Baoqiang, Luo Lanshan
Written and directed by Jia Zhang-ke
Running time 2 hours, 5 minutes