The wide-ranging berth of writer-director Jia Zhangeke’s multipartite, all-across-China film, A Touch of Sin, cannot deny its impeccable eye for the specificity and complication of even the least of its individual tales. A Touch of Sin is obviously the story of a society; its nature is polyphonic, paralleling four individual tales and hinting at many others, asking us to look at a wider portrait of the world, even one in which many souls feel atomized and alienated. But, despite the length and size of this film, it never feels like a belabored or overly-grandiose obelisk, a sky-high statement that attempts to encompass all of China. Its rhythms are minute and intimate, its portrait of modern-day China finding its genesis not in any declamatory, macro-level statements but in the tight minutiae of four tales playing out on canvases of inward regret, internal dissolution, and people yearning for other selves.
Before I get anywhere, I must stress that the nature of the film’s four stories is not a trick or an exercise in the structural mechanics of a puzzle or a thriller. The moral, spatial, and ideological universe it occupies has nothing to do with the fussy and too-cute faux-complication of, say, Babel or any of those other mechanical hyperlink stories (excepting the wonderful Short Cuts from Robert Altman). Each of A Touch of Sin’s tales is hermetically sealed at a narrative level. The tendrils from one to the others are not narrative but spiritual and conceptual, intellectual and emotional. Each tale adds imaginative dimension to the others by exposing similarities and differences between various regions of China, but there’s no point in playing “spot the intersection”, as though one character from another story is suddenly about to traipse into the background of another tale, reducing the film to a particularly beautiful “Where’s Waldo” picture book. There’s one minor instance of intersection, but none of the stories meaningfully “affect” the other at a narrative level. This is a film about probing the fissures between people and spaces, not unearthing unexpected connections between them or implying that character A’s life is the mental or emotional plaything of character B on the other coast of the nation, or that one physical memento slithers into each tale and allows us to draw easy lines between them.
Insofar as each tale is connected, it is that each culminates in a final act of ultimate violence, each uncorking a steady build-up of destitution and oppression in fatal, fell blows. The four stories all end this way, in unmitigated and unapologetic violence, but A Touch of Sin crucially and pensively foregrounds that none begins that way. China, and America or any nation for that matter, would probably want you to erase anything but the final acts, offering the central individuals of each tale as abominations prey only to their own moralities and neoliberal individual agencies, their own personal decisions. They would be aberrations of individual immorality completely untethered to the world around them, disconnected from the social forces that construct and demarcate individual action. But Zhangeke’s film pulls back and, although playing its tales out in short bursts, casts its eye toward the long haul, to the missed connections and choking opportunities and institutional abuses that turn men and women into appendages of an already violent and corrupted system collapsing on itself.
Take the film’s signature segment, of a miner named Dahai (Jiang Wu) who grows increasingly enraged at the corruption of his village leaders in rural China. It’s a vignette, but rather than over-pack it with a dense and over-bearing kaleidoscope of events, it slows things to a slither, revealing its noir influences not in a proclivity for twists and turns but in its suffocating aura of encroaching despair that refuses to subside. It also shares a pitch-black humor courtesy not only of noir but Zhangeke’s earlier films, themselves less violent and ostensibly more gentle works, but works that are equally evocative of working class woes and social inequalities felt on intimately human registers. Dahai’s story is semi-realist drama, but also somewhat impressionistic, even minimalistic. It prefers not to explode into the violent orgy of a social screed or a grandiose speech about inequality when it can register the suffocating weight of his frustration and social destitution on Wu’s weary and weathered face.
Although it may seem so, A Touch of Sin is anything but stylistically homogeneous. But rather than lapsing into a programmatic mode where each tale plays out in one particular dominant hue or in one filmic idiom, each occupies the same style that can modulate between gritty realism, Fuller-esque hard-hitting poetry, and bone-dry surrealism. When Wu goes on a rampage, he dresses his gun in a flowing tiger blanket, and Zhangeke films it like a perverse parody of a Death Wish film, the hero sharking through the streets, ready to mount a war path. And Zhangeke considers the tragic absurdism of unknown people caught in the crossfire, as well as a sight transplanted from one of Roy Andersson’s frigid-comic Monty Python riffs, where a man beating a horse on end and for no apparent reason is still engaged in the same activity in the same spot seemingly hours later. Oppression and violence, it seems, come in many forms, and Zhangeke sets his sights on as many as he can. The final image of this first segment, police cars hurtling by to the right (presumably to arrest Dahai) as we follow the now-freed horse trotting to the left, is a mordant requiem for freedom and a parody of the expectation that there is any genuine hope for escape for the human race.
The moments of perverse beauty in the film – the tiger blanket, the horse – are anything but arbitrary. Not only do they push back against the anonymizing pall of bureaucracy, but they reconnect A Touch of Sin to its unlikely moral influences in wuxia. I am not the first critic or writer to compare the film to King Hu’s famous wuxia film A Touch of Zen, upon which Zhangeke’s film draws its American title. Like that film, Sin is ultimately dedicated to questions of how people under duress cope with social and moral illnesses. Zhangeke draws from that vein, and he encourages imaginative empathy with his characters when cinematographer Yu Likwai, for instance, films one character’s violence in a sauna through ecstatic flourishes of brazen stylization, commiserating with her via a style that embodies her liberating psychological wrath against male oppression.
But Zhangeke also complicates the wuxia framework – or reveals that it was already more complicated in those ‘70s films than we tend to admit – by not granting his characters the moral emancipation of unmitigated flight or far-off, semi-super-powered fantasy lands. Whether it be the story of spa receptionist Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao), alluded to above, or migrant worker Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), or the accident-afflicted Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) in the drollest of the segments, whatever temporary freedoms their violence affords them are ultimately still prey to ethical ramifications. These people react against the world, and the film is on their side in a manner of speaking, but the gravity with which the film understands their actions is a far cry from the excusatory depictions of violence in the aforementioned Death Wish (to be grotesquely remade for Trump’s America this year, 2017). One wishes for the easy moral certainties of, say, those wuxia fantasy films set in some indeterminate but far-off emotional and temporal realm where violence can be seen as entirely justified, individualistic and essentially decoupled from society, and having no real connection to the world today. Comparatively, as when Zhangeke catches one character firing off bullets against a backdrop of fireworks in a display of violence joining forces and homogenizing with national pride, every action in A Touch of Sin contributes to a feeling of a today that is prey to apocalyptic, unstoppable forces roving slowly toward an abyss from which there is no return.