I went to see A Touch of Sin tonight in the delightfully pretentious Renoir cinema in London’s Brunswick Centre. Having seen its rave reviews on Rotten Tomatoes from the critics and a respectable aggregate on other popular sites, I thought I owed it to myself to see this supposed masterpiece of Chinese cinema.
First of all, it is worth noting that this is a painstakingly slow movie at times. There are similarities to be made with Tarantino, with its long drawn out scenes of tedious monotony such as minute long clips of people constantly walking. For the average audience without much cinematic clout, it will probably be a very boring affair but anyone with a good understanding and interest in cinema and/or contemporary China will find some joy from the film.
The film is strange in that it could be almost be four short films of episodic length that are all combined into one large film. The four main characters are all linked by brief overlaps into each others lives (although not significant). Dahei, our first protagonist is a man that is trying to uncover corruption in his community and facing constant opposition. Our second lead character is a mysterious man with a gun who you aren’t quite sure of until late in his story. The third lead is a woman who is engaged in an affair with a married man whilst also maintaining a career in a local sauna and facing her own difficulties. The final character is a young factory worker who bounces around from job to job, unable to find any sort of permanent basis to his life.
As you can see, each character is varied in their age, life, location and motive but they are ultimately linked by a few key factors that are present throughout the film and where I think it really stands out as a great film. Every character ultimately ends their story in some sort of violent outburst. I’m hardly fluent in Mandarin but it’s clear from the way they speak that the characters all come from very different regions. Dahei has a very complex accent to understand, hinting as his village basis, as opposed to the young factory worker who spends his time living a city life. Despite such vast differences though, each character is a victim of social injustice and corruption that the film suggests is endemic in China.
The violence is not arbitrary. It is graphic and sometimes savage but the interesting thing is, it feels justified. You spend a lot of time with these intriguing characters who you see struggle on a daily basis. Each of them reaches the edge of reason in front of the audience and despite their actions, you can’t help but feel sympathy for them. In a society that seems to so flagrantly flaunt corruption before their eyes and subject them to inequality, it’s no surprise they act like they do.
The cinematography also paints an interesting picture of China. As I mentioned previously, there is heavy use of long-shots of monotonous actions such as walking. What makes these shots noticeable, however, is the lack of life and industry taking place in them. In an early scene, Dahei meets his village chief arrive in a brand new plane that it is suggested he purchased with embezzled money from the sale of village assets. In previous scenes to this, we see Dahei walking through dust storms in run-down streets and old tattered buildings.
The director, Jia Zhangke, also seems fixated on slow panning shots of normal people working or standing in crowds. For such a technique to be used so much, it is certainly on purpose and I imagine his intention is to show the monotony and tedium that these people face on a daily basis. Lines and lines of factory workers performing tiresome tasks without any room for error, for example. It’s also worth noting how the manager of a factory is Taiwanese and informs the young factory worker how hard work is rewarded by a holiday to Taiwan to visit the company’s head office.
When I talked about this film with my partner, we both seemed to agree that the cinema lacked cinematic flair but it didn’t matter. We talked about the social issues on display as well as the rationality of the characters in much greater depth than I have done for many films and for that alone, it is worth the effort. Few films are as thought provoking as this and can create such an interesting discussion about the state of modern China. The fact that the film has not been released in China should also tell you a lot about the content on display.
P.S. Janie informs me that the direction translation of the films original title is more akin to being As God Wills It than A Touch of Sin. A Touch of Sin is a pleasant enough title but I think I prefer the translation. It makes the plight of the characters seem much more futile, especially with regards to the systematic corruption they face. Tragically ironic in fact.