Murderers and serial killers fascinate us to no end, with a collective gasp emerging from the mouths of the populace whenever such a story makes the headlines: “How could they do such a thing?” Books, televised case studies, even movies begin to crop up about the assailants in the attempt to see through their seemingly alien psychological state, rightly condemning them in the process; but an interesting recurrence is that the first assertion generally tends to be that they were mentally tapped from the outset, quickly segregating the monsters from the ‘normals’. What’s more interesting, however, is Jia Zhangke’s take on the matter. Ever the pessimist about the state of his homeland China, Jia instead proposes: “How could you not do such a thing?”
But far from making a pro-vigilante picture in the vein of Death Wish or post-2000 Tarantino, Jia purports that violence is a natural instinct that lies just beyond a socially-instated threshold, as supported by the continuous references to animals encapsulating the feelings of each of the four main characters; after fleeing a vicious beating, the ostracized Xiaoyu ends up in a van full of potent yet passive snakes, one of which is later seen escaping towards a local town, symbolising her imminent reaction to her misfortunes; Dahai, an outspoken villager hell-bent on bringing down several corrupt officials, is embodied by the sight of a stubborn horse being whipped to death, and later by a rug bearing the image of a roaring tiger that he keeps in his house.
Indeed, the economical injustice being perpetrated just out of his political reach commonly sets the guy into fits of frustration, which later erupts into an all-out bloodbath incurred by endless mockery from the rest of the townsfolk. But Dahai’s tragic flaw is that he cares too much about the bigger picture; he has no happiness in his life, and instead wallows in anger over something he can’t do anything about. Each of the four acts operate within this sort of frame – Jia takes his time pushing each of his characters to the edge until they revolt, at which point the movie breaks from its realist aesthetic into stylised outbursts of quick, brutal violence.
Jia isn’t exactly unfounded in his complaints regarding what he expounds as a failing Chinese society, however, as each of the events depicted in the movie are based on real incidents: the Shanxi killings, the robberies of Zhou Kehua, the Deng Yujiao incident and the Foxconn suicides, all of which have taken place since the year 2000. And despite how satisfying it may be to see Dahai take down the embezzling officials in such a bloodthirsty fashion, each of the stories become tougher and tougher to deal with, culminating in a final act that is outright depressing. This is what separates A Touch of Sin from gung-ho, morally bankrupt revenge pictures such as Law Abiding Citizen, and the mounting sense of dread it accumulates across its brutal 135-minute running-time leaves a haunting impression that’ll stay with you for days, especially with the chilling impact of its final shot.
Part of the movie’s staying power comes from the stark imagery of Sin‘s environments and settings, from the Bicycle Thieves-esque shots of Shanxi to the cold, colourless ‘Oasis of Prosperity’ apartment block, and from its incredible use of sound; disembodied noises float through otherwise action-less sequences to reflect a character’s troubled mentality; in the twilight zone that occurs before violence, the movie tends to plunge into an unsettling quietness; and when that violence eventually hits, it’s accompanied by deep, throbbing music that’ll turn your bowels to water.
Not only does its potency lie within its formal aspects, but also in the occasionally strange behaviour of its characters; it’s a movie rooted in realism, yet there are often instances of sheer absurdity, and the performances can be unnervingly stop-start during key moments. That’s not to mention how unpredictable the movie becomes after the second act, by which point you’ve come to expect silences as a prelude to something grisly, as well as taking the occurrence of something grisly as a sad inevitability. It’s a tremendously well-made movie that becomes far more than the sum of its parts by instilling a discomfort into the guts of the viewer, its ostensibly unrelated storylines tied together in a web of complete, yet underplayed despair.
It’s no real surprise that A Touch of Sin appears unlikely to see general release in China, given that not a single character is ever truly happy, and the ones that come the closest to being so fall the hardest. Several characters remark upon desires to leave their hometown, such as Xiaoyu’s elderly mother, who openly states her plans to leave China altogether as soon as the nearby airport is completed. Each of the four acts take place in impoverished areas, either in the shadow of metropolitan areas or amongst rubble and debris-beridden villages, in which characters spend their days fighting, gambling, or grumbling. The most powerful of these depictions occurs when Zhou San finds his son watching the Chinese New Year fireworks, and asks him if he wants to set off their own. “Great!” his son replies, to which Zhou responds by retrieving a pistol from his pocket, the only ‘firework’ he has, and firing it into the night sky. It even sounds, and looks, sadly pathetic in comparison.
The other thing that comes from this, as well as a scene that occurs a few moments beforehand, is that unhappiness can breed frustration, and frustration can eventually lead to violence, completely eradicating the link between the killers and the normals that the media so frantically tries to instill. Of course, it has to; violence has to be kept separate from the ideals of civilised life, and rightly so, although the sad and unspoken fact is that every human being has a breaking point. How much pressure it takes differs from person to person, and this is definitely illustrated in the varying characters in A Touch of Sin, some of who are already halfway there, while others are merely acting in self-defense. That said, Jia has created an excellent meditation on violence that speaks some unfortunate, uncomfortable truths, and is resoundingly powerful as a result.
A Touch of Sin was written and directed by Jia Zhangke and stars Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao and Wang Baoqiang. It lasts for 135 minutes and is a production of Xstream Pictures, the Shanghai Film Group and Office Kitano. Distributed in the UK by Arrow Films.