I'd seen two of Chinese director Jia Zhangke's films before, "Platform" from 2000 and "Still Life" from 2006. It was enough to get a good sense of his style and his aims as a director, which is to explore modern Chinese life and society with a more critical, nuanced eye than many of his predecessors were able to. His work is definitely art house fare, meditative dramas full of slow, quiet scenes. So it was a shock to find his latest film, "A Touch of Sin," is a crime movie with several jarring moments of violence.
The two-hour film is an anthology of four different stories with very different settings and protagonists. All of them are based on real life crimes that highlight a variety of socials ills. In the first story, a man, Dahai (Wu Jiang) attempts to bring to light the corruption of a group of village officials who have profited handsomely from the sale of the local mine. In the second, we follow a migrant worker, Zhao San (Wang Baoqiang), who is visiting home for the New Year but not received warmly by his family. The third is about Xiao Yu (Tao Zhao), a woman who works at a spa and is conducting a secret affair. Finally, the last story is about a young factory worker, Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo), who falls in love with a prostitute, Lianrong (Li Meng).
There are few connecting threads between each story, aside from the thematic goal of exploring different forms of sudden violence and their causes. At first glance all four stories appear to follow a similar pattern. We are introduced to our protagonist and his or her circumstances, following the ordinary course of their lives and witnessing the slow burn of simmering tensions that eventually boil over at the end of the story. However, these characters are quite different from each other and their paths to violence are not the same. One is clearly disturbed from the beginning, another is frustrated by a perceived lack of other options, and another is gradually desensitized to violence after repeated exposure in everyday life.
Jia does not focus on the violence, though it is portrayed bluntly enough that the Chinese censors have condemned the film for graphic content. Each story ends almost immediately after each incident of violence occurs, and we are not shown reactions or consequences, with one exception. Rather, Jia is concerned with the systems and culture that seem to foster violence. We get these wonderful snapshots of the various communities and oppressive social structures that the affect the characters through incidental conversations and interactions with minor players. The introspective leads are often isolated on the screen, brooding silently as part of the long, beautiful shots of busy city streets or empty country roads. In the final story, the cramped factory dormitories and luxurious nightclubs serve to emphasize the alienation and hopelessness of the final protagonist.
How much of the responsibility for these tragedies should be borne by the individual and how much should be blamed on society? Jia doesn't give a straightforward answer, and the circumstances are different enough in each little morality tale that they point to different answers. However, he does single out various societal forces as contributing factors: apathy towards the abuses of the elites, weakened familial ties due to working conditions, and a lack of opportunities for the young, among others. This is all conveyed fairly subtly, in terms that would never get "A Touch of Sin" mistaken for a more typical social justice picture, but I still find it remarkable that Jia Zhangke is able to be so candid in his examination of Chinese social ills.
Of the four stories, I think the first with the corrupt officials is the strongest and the one that makes the most lasting impression because it is so dynamic, and the tragicomic performance of Wu Jiang is a lot of fun. It comes the closest to the usual template of a bombastic action movie, and is the least like Jia Zhangke's other films, which is probably why I found it such a great surprise. I also like the third one featuring the director's wife and longtime muse, Tao Zhao, though the climax feels a little tacked on. The other two have their strengths, but they're less successful and contain some puzzling ambiguities I'm not sure were intentional. The psychopath story in particular needed some fleshing out and I'd love to see a longer version.
I wouldn't be disappointed if Jia Zhangke went back to making his more subdued social dramas, but it's always exciting when a good director tries to experiment a bit, and I hope he considers more genre outings in the future - especially if they come out as well as "A Touch of Sin."