Like most pedestrian film go-ers, my exposure to Chinese cinema has been through the lens of contemporary directors Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee and (yes, grasping at straws here, but) John Woo. To experience Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is like sitting down to a screening of Two Hands or Romper Stomper after watching Crocodile Dundee or The Man From Snowy River. There’s no lush, breathtaking scenery, no loveable, heart-of-gold, salt-of-the-earth characters, just a big tall glass of contemporary neo-economic liberalist China – and while it’s not a particularly pleasant image that’s presented, it is certainly a gripping film.
Based on actual events, A Touch of Sin explores increasing violence in modern Chinese society, retelling four widely publicised deaths that occurred in Shanxi, Chongqing, Hubei and Guangdong in the recent past. Pushed to their limits in the face of inequality, corruption, violence and the inescapable treadmill of ‘working poor’ in contemporary China, director Zhangke’s film details the lengths people will go, as he says, “to restore their lost dignity”.
Awarded Best Screenplay at Cannes 2013, A Touch of Sin is a brilliant piece of cinema. With a narrative utilising the wuxia pian (martial arts*) method of story telling, the four stories are presented a self-contained stories, but each with the central themes of struggling against oppression in harsh social environments. Indeed, the title of the film is an unabashed homage to the master of the genre – King Hu and his 1971 film; A Touch of Zen.
A Touch of Sin is not an uplifting, feel-good film; on the contrary it is challenging (people walked out of the screening I was present at), confronting and at best, bleak. That said, it is remarkably well written, the direction, camerawork and editing is flawless and the acting here is first-rate. Clocking in at 133 minutes, the film is something of a haul, but well worth sitting through.
In short, if you’re the kind of cinema go-er that eagerly awaits the next Hollywood adaption of a Marvel comics franchise, give this a wide-berth. If, on the other hand, you’re up for a film that demands an enthusiastic de-brief once the house lights come up, you really should get thyself to ACMI and see A Touch Of Sin.
A Touch Of Sin screens exclusively at ACMI in Melbourne from February 1st – February 28th
*if you’re expecting hand-to-hand combat or sword play a-la Hero or Crouching Tiger, prepare to be disappointed; although there is ample gun-play. Martial Arts refers to the narrative style. Sorry kids.