Joshua Reviews Jia Zhangke’s A Touch Of Sin [Theatrical Review]

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With this year’s festival circuit all but complete (NYFF is still running strong), various films have helped gotten their launch from prestigious names like Cannes and Toronto. However, very few have become as talked about and as polarizing the new film from director Jia Zhangke, entitled A Touch Of Sin. With various scholars naming Zhangke one of world cinema’s most influential and important auteurs, and a new film that may be one of the angriest and most stimulating dramas of this very year, A Touch Of Sin is jumping from the festival circuit to theaters on October 4 (via Kino Lorber), and is a real must see.

Dense yet oddly approachable, this foursome of short stories looks at four real-life events that are microcosms of a China on the brink of becoming not only one of the world’s biggest powers, but also a nation entirely jettisoning its lower classes in the process. Written by Zhangke as well, the film tells the story of characters like a miner who, in a corrupt province, takes justice into his own hands. Or the migrant worker we meet who tries to take his life back when he takes a gun into his possession. Or a spa receptionist who, after being accosted by a client, decides to end the violence once and for all. Or finally, a young man who, after an accident at a local factory, goes on the run only to find a new job, and also love in the process. While the stories may not have much connective tissue, hell, even the locales jump around China, the brilliance of Zhangke and his latest film is to not only craft narratives that are utterly engrossing, but weave intimate tales of men and women driven to violence through oppression, primarily of the economic sort.

As mentioned throughout this review so far, Zhangke is easily this film’s biggest star. While this writer isn’t all that familiar with his canon, this seems like an oddly accessible entry point for those new to the filmmaker. Beautifully and poetically shot, taking inspiration seemingly from films like Rossellini’s Stromboli (there is a shot set atop a mound of what looks like coal that is straight out of that film’s final act) to classic wu xia films like A Touch Of Zen, the film from which Zhangke derived the title for this new picture. Bitter and deeply antagonistic, the film takes a deep look at the current state of China and the violence and corruption that runs rampant throughout it, but does so with a beautifully crafted and shot eye, blending percussive action set pieces with pensively shot character moments, turning this film into an action drama all its own.

And it is in this central theme, that the real beauty comes to life. A rather blunt pictures in many ways, the subtlety comes in the ability for the viewer to not only relate to the characters, but have the characters earn almost all of their empathy, even in committing horrible acts of violence. The bursts of action here are both aesthetically entrancing and also intellectually stimulating both in hose they are shot and also how utterly cathartic they ultimately become. It’s a truly thrilling motion picture that both excites a viewer looking for breathlessly paced action and engrosses those with a pension for digging far deeper into their viewing experiences.

However, it is to Zhangke’s credit that he gets the top notch performances out of a cast including known commodities and non-actors alike. While names like Tao Zhao, Jiang Wu, Lanshan Luo and Wu Jiang may not be the highest of household names here stateside, they should be, as throughout this film the performances truly elevate the already great material. The film stars the foursome of Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Zhao and Luo, all giving unanimously great performances, particularly Luo, a youngster whose performance is not only the most emotionally resonant, but also the most universal and relatable. Zhao is equally superb in arguably the most interesting segment, while Wu is tasked with doing much of the heavy lifting, during the film’s first and most violent segment. A brooding and atmospheric quartet of narratives, these four lead performances truly ground the film in a brutally honest and bewilderingly angry sense of realism.

Inarguably one of 2013’s most thrilling and beautifully crafted films, this haunting two hour masterpiece of social meditating stands firmly as one of 2013’s greatest cinematic efforts. A festival darling from all the way back at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this much talked about return to the big screen for director Zhangke is a menacing and completely agro meditation on a nation that has become a world power in a time span so short that its citizens are being completely left in the economic dust. With an economic gap growing at an exponential rate, this film’s central question posits, what happens when those left behind can’t take it any longer? When corruption becomes the norm, how can one take a stand?

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