A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding), directed by renowned filmmaker Jia Zhangke, gives us a rare perspective on the sides of modern day China we don’t always see. The film is split into four loosely-connected vignettes each set in a different region of China and taking their inspiration from real events. The dark and brutal drama/action flick gives us a bleak look at the consequences of an ever-growing Chinese economy, and attempts to expose the greed and violence that plague parts of Chinese society because of this massive growth. Strong social commentary along with some Tarantino-esque visuals and four random acts of violence ensure a gripping and thought-provoking experience.
As the film opens we are introduced to Dahai, a poor coal miner. Dressed in a worn out trench coat, he sits on his motorcycle as the wind blows noisily by and a fire from a crashed truck burns high in the background. Tomatoes from the crashed truck fill the streets. The camera then quickly pans to Zhou San, who has just passed Dahai on his own motorcycle. Zhou San is confronted by three armed youths while still mounted. We soon realize that the three youth chose the wrong man to rob. Zhou San reaches into his coat pocket and mercilessly kills all three youths, giving them no time to flee. The violence doesn’t stop there, however, as Jia brings us back to the first character, star of possibly the strongest story within the movie.
Dahai lives in a poor mining town rampant with corruption and greed, and it seems like he is the only one who is willing to speak up about it. Despite Dahai’s perseverance and willingness to bring corrupt boss Jiao to justice, his co-workers refuse to comply. Alienated and marked as an outcast, Dahai chooses to publicly confront his boss at a welcoming party at his private jet in front of most of the village. He ends up paying a high price for his defiance with a blow to the head from a company executive.
The next three narratives, though not as strong as the first one, carry quite a punch as well. They include the story of Zhou San, a migrant worker who supports his family financially with a gun and cold blood, a massage parlor receptionist (played by the director’s wife) who is pushed too far, and finally Xiao Hui, a young teenager from the provinces who flees from a workplace accident he caused in an exploitative factory and ends up working in an upscale brothel where he appears to have found love.
A Touch of Sin is peppered with ironic statements about the current state of China. Possibly the most striking of these is the name Jia chose for the condo where Xiao Hui and the other factory workers stay: The Oasis of Prosperity. These biting touches are especially remarkable given the fact that reporting on many of the true events touched upon in the film, which has yet to be released in China, was censored by the government.
All stories are charged with violence and focus on alienated people pushed to the brink by either corruption, greed, or violence. Each narrative is set in a different Chinese region with a different standard of living. Jia arranges the four narratives so that the poorest region is shown first and the most prosperous ends the film – although this prosperity doesn’t extend to the characters themselves. Jia sometimes moves too fast in the last three narratives however and at times does not give us enough time to delve deep into the story or grab our attention.
Regardless of this, Jia’s film still delivers a message, and does so in a very entertaining and captivating way. The message can be summed up nicely by the director himself while in an interview with film critic Marsha McCreadie, “The expansion in China has been so fast there’s been no room for the system to catch up with any kind of humanity.”
A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding) is playing at Cinema du Parc (3575 Parc) until January 16.