From the opening moments of Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin, something strange is afoot—and not just the unexpected flourish of violence which punctuates the first scene. The opening titles announce the film as a co-production between Jia’s Xstream Pictures and the Shanghai Film Group, marking this as the Chinese iconoclast’s first studio film in a career of independent productions. Prior to his great 2004 film The World, his work wasn’t sanctioned by the Chinese government, so pointed was the critique of his homeland. Since that time, Jia has spent time working in both the documentary form (Dong; I Wish I Knew) and through something approaching both documentary and narrative cinema (Still Life; 24 City), effectively—almost imperceptibly—combining devices from each in an effort at constructing an altogether new hybrid. In some ways, then, A Touch of Sin feels like the film many may have expected to follow something like The World. In every other conceivable way, however, Jia’s latest represents new, uncharted stylistic frontier, one littered gunplay, knife fights—even an explosion.
Yet while his narrative and aesthetic techniques belie at first blush to a more populist mindset, A Touch of Sin stands as one of Jia’s most radical experiments yet. Inspired by a series of recent, well-documented instances of violence throughout China, the film takes a four-pronged structuring approach, telling a succession of at-best tangentially related stories wherein working-class characters are driven to violence by outside forces. Jia doesn’t preface contextually or identify locationally, though it eventually becomes clear that we’re watching characters from various parts of the country meant to stand in for the greater Chinese populace. For Jia, these instances are simply indicative of a larger problem for the underprivileged, for whom “resorting to violence is the quickest and most direct way [they] can try to restore their lost dignity.” If this more literal realization of political and personal disenfranchisement has stripped some of the mystery from Jia’s intuitive storytelling ability, it’s also notably beget a newly assertive Jia, one of blunt force and a not only unresolved, but visceral sense of social obligation.
For their part, the individual segments are fairly streamlined, though as the film progresses Jia shades and illuminates prior moments with small instances of character detail and motivation. The four characters which drive each part—a disgruntled miner rallying against his superiors; an immigrant acting out against the privileged and upper class; a receptionist driven to violence against clients; and a laborer broken down by the grind of dead-end jobs—are seemingly common folk pushing against various forms of injustice. In each instance, however, they are, depending on your interpretation, either burdened or liberated by the appearance of weapons and the capacity for recompense each offers. All four ultimately utilize their given armament in different though equally brutal fashion (Jia both foreshadows and abruptly depicts such instances, and they’re aided in most cases by CGI effects, which he dabbled in to memorable effect in Still Life), and the combined effect paints an angry, morally thorny portrait of modern-day China.
For A Touch of Sin, Jia has claimed as inspiration both the wuxia (martial arts) genre and traditional Chinese opera. And though the connection may be more spiritual than literal (the actual instances of action and drama account for only a small portion of the film’s healthy 133-minute runtime), in both title (the reverent nod to King Hu’s A Touch of Zen) and construction (each vignette builds, often wordlessly, to violent crescendo), the film introduces, then upends, its perspective of vigilante justice and put-upon tragedy. “Do you understand your sin?” a street performer implores of her audience in the film’s final sequence, the image of straight faces staring directly at the camera asking of its audience the same vital question as that of its filmic counterpart. Jia may have conceived and produced A Touch of Sin for and about his own people, but the thematic inquiries of his film remain universal, the extent of his ambition as limitless and provocative as it’s ever been.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 15—26.