The feelings of moral and emotional disjointment, set against tremendous historical and societal shifts in modern China, that have denoted Jia Zhang-ke's oeuvre thus far build to a rolling boil early in A Touch of Sin. In essence, it's a grisly, sardonic crime film, which the writer-director based off of news items that he found while scouring a network of blogs that report on violent crimes and political corruption, a great deal of which is suppressed by government regulators. The news revealed a growling discontent brought on by an eerie schism between China's new ruling class and the working class, and the bloodshed he deploys here with startling, impactful effect reflects a refreshing, scathing fury in the filmmaker.
The specter of China's new criminally rich regulators is seen at the beginning of the film, as a trio of established gangsters attempt to shake down—and are subsequently executed by—motorcyclist Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) on a long, empty stretch of road. Jia quickly shifts his focus to Dahai (Jiang Wu), a poverty-stricken townie in the Shanxi region who, upon a visit from the town's chief benefactor, demands reform from elected officials, business owners, and a crooked accountant. Things don't go so well, and Dahai's climactic killing spree is enacted with precision and unmistakable intent.
It's to Jia's credit that these brutal slayings never feel either celebratory or cold, due largely to how Jiang expresses his character's alienating directness and rage. The violence isn't comical, necessarily, but there's an exhilarating, measured embellishment to how the blood flows from Dahai's victims, the bluntness and absurdity of the acts making them almost deadpan in nature. This is less of the case when we loop back around to San, traveling to his hometown of Chongqing for his mother's birthday celebration. As depicted by Jia, the balance between the spoils and moral rot of murder are far preferable to the debasing rigors of tradition and hollow nationalism. The filmmaker shares in the terror and the scintillation of San's gunplay, but the true insidiousness of it all comes in a sequence where the young killer shoots his gun in the air, the crackle of each bullet blending in with the fireworks his son is admiring.
At one point, San's neighbor kills his child's beloved pet for dinner, and Jia's strangely beautiful composition of the act feels like a reverberation of the emotional numbness that plagues San. There's a similar visual echo from the abuse of another animal, that of a tired, disgruntled horse being whipped incessantly by his owner in Dahai's town. The heedless mistreatment clearly relates to Dahai's existence, but there's a more direct reference to the horse owner's behavior in the story of Hubei (Zhao Tao), a cuckolding spa clerk who asks her lover to leave his wife and is given a knife to hold instead. At one point, she's beaten over and over with a stack of bills by an abusive customer, and Jia stunningly reinvents the very same motion seen when the horse was being whipped. The knife comes in handy, if you hadn't guessed, and after the blood's been spilled, Jia attributes a different kind of spirit animal to Hubei: a snake that goes from being an accessory for a roadside prophet to slithering freely in the grass.
More than the animals, the idea of being forever in transport between towns and cities without a fixed location is a thematic idea Jia utilizes to gracefully interconnect these stories. It's especially prevalent in the final story, which centers on Hui Xiao (Luo Lanshan), who leaves his job and relocates after a co-worker's mishap, finding new employment as a greeter at an upscale brothel. He also finds love—the doomed sort—with a comfort girl (Li Vivien), only to realize that her affections have frosted over by her soul-corroding "career" as a plaything for old men, one of whom is played by Jia in a cheeky cameo. In the filmmaker's China, one can find work and money but only through rootlessness and ruthlessness, and the violence that erupts throughout A Touch of Sin works as a return of the repressed. Indeed, though indebted to wuxia and opera, Jia's latest is as much horror film as it is an exacting actioner. Jia's four lost souls, however, have only arisen through rampant degradation, carelessness, and corruptive greed, leaving them caught in either vengeful madness or total disassociation. In effect, Jia has blurred the line between Dr. Frankenstein and the creation his ego and ambition created, but his empathy clearly aligns with the mistreated "monsters."