Take a Drink: for any form of robbery
Take a Drink: for apples
Take a Drink: whenever somebody throws money around
Take a Drink: for gunshots
Take a Drink: for animal cruelty
Do a Shot: for each story transition
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Like a surprising amount of Chinese culture (quick, name one Chinese novelist. Composer? Painter?), contemporary Chinese film doesn’t get the exposure you’d expect it to outside of China, especially after the 90s auteurs like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige slowed down or moved in more commercial directions. Many of the films that you’d associate with the country, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are actually international productions mainly using Hong Kong and Taiwanese talent. So, quick name a wholly Chinese film.
No. On so many levels, No.
The superb A Touch of Sin might just be my answer to that question from here on out. Based on (in some cases allegedly) true events, it interweaves four unconnected tales of economic distress, class tension, and vengeance in far-flung corners of modern China.
This film still hasn’t been released in mainland China, and it’s not surprising why. This is a furious film, wholly focused on people who have been marginalized in the ostensibly class-free Socialist system of China, pushing back violently when they’re finally cornered by it. This is no Robin Hood tale, though, as they aren’t presented as holding a moral high ground or fighting for justice. They’re just… desperate, and the impact and fury of the film lies in the simple existence of their stories, not in any melodramatic massaging of them.
Chinese Robin Hood is all out of fucks to give
That’s not to say that A Touch of Sin is lacking in style. Far from it- director Jia Zhangke, prior to this known for far more sedate and poetic art films, positively layers it on. He combines highly stylized, expertly staged, and utterly brutal modern violence with wuxia trappings, especially the use of traditional music. It’s a striking mix, and DP Yu Lik-wai takes full advantage of the exotically unexotic settings of the different stories- from stark Western China to the industrial North and the neon-covered brothels of new industrial metropolises like Dongguan. This is the China I traveled across last year, from the grey former imperial walls of Pingyao to the imminent urban expanses of Guangzhao, not the mythic green forests and mountains we usually see.
Each episodes story is a model of setting up character development and establishing setting in a short period of time, but some of them get on their feet and start to run faster than others. In particular, the first story takes a little too long to really get moving. Also…
There’s a surprising amount of animal cruelty in the film, and I’m 99.9% certain that none of it is staged. The horse beating scene in particular is hard to stomach, even with the admittedly great payoff later. And yeah, I get the Nietzsche reference.
A Touch of Sin is an incredibly stylish, kinetic, and evocative quartet of vignettes howling with anger at the injustices of China’s new economic order. An unforgettable film.