Not exactly your grandmother’s Jia Zhangke movie, “A Touch of Sin” marks an arresting but unpersuasive change of pace for a filmmaker hitherto lauded for his placid, perceptive snapshots of contemporary China (“Still Life,” “The World”). Once again exploring the many varieties of social, political and economic oppression at home, Jia crams together four very uneven stories of four troubled individuals, all climaxing in horrific acts of violence that send the film swerving into Grand Guignol territory. Likely to court solid arthouse attention, plus some controversy despite its official Chinese sponsorship, this is unquestionably Jia’s most mainstream-friendly work, if also his most schematic and, blades aside, least penetrating; its ripped-from-the-headlines relevance is decidedly at odds with its giddy geysers of blood.
Many of the purist auteurists who have made the writer-director such a celebrated figure on the international stage may well reject his seventh feature on aesthetic grounds alone. For them, the real sin will be that Jia has abandoned the docu-fiction experimentation of 2008’s “24 City” in favor of a relatively robust narrative, replete with the sort of balls-to-the-wall brutality more typically encountered in the work of Quentin Tarantino or Takashi Miike.
Others may argue that Jia has merely rendered explicit the convulsive undercurrents present in his work all along, exploring the extreme consequences of local corruption and neglect, rampant greed, poor labor conditions and countless other social ills fueled by China’s economic miracle. Allowing content to dictate form, he has adopted a pulpy and accessible realist style in order to tackle some of his country’s most notorious recent tragedies on a broad, panoramic canvas. (Among the incidents either fictionalized or mentioned here are a deadly high-speed train accident in 2011 and the suicides of 18 Foxconn factory employees in 2010.)
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In any event, there’s a certain pleasure to be had in seeing a revered auteur go off the disreputable deep end, and there’s no denying “A Touch of Sin” packs a visceral wallop — particular in the first and bloodiest of its four loosely connected yarns. On a dusty stretch of China’s northern Shanxi province (Jia’s birthplace), a disgruntled miner (Jiang Wu) goes around verbally abusing the corrupt village officials who have cost him his livelihood; not until he arms himself with a rifle are his threats and accusations taken seriously. A gun also figures into the film’s less involving second segment, set in the southwestern city of Chongqing; there, a dead-eyed migrant worker (Wang Baoqiang), who has returned home for his mother’s 70th birthday celebration, makes a singularly productive if lethal discovery.
The protagonists of the next two vignettes register as considerably more human and sympathetic. Most of the film’s acting opportunities go to Jia’s wife and regular muse, Zhao Tao, cast here as a sauna receptionist (based in the central Chinese province of Hubei) who makes the mistake of giving her married lover an ultimatum. If nothing else, the outcome of this melodrama puts a knife-wielding Zhao at the center of one of the film’s more indelibly blood-spattered images.
Nineteen-year-old Luo Lanshan, the sole non-pro actor among the four leads, gets the film’s limpest role as a mild-mannered kid who drifts from one soul-crushing job to another in the industrial city of Dongguan, well known for having China’s highest concentration of sex workers. This final tale does allow Jia to get in some wickedly satirical jabs — particularly in a few scenes at a high-end brothel peddling young women in sexy military uniforms — before attempting to tie the stories together in a sub-Kieslowskian narrative framework.
Rather than employing his customary long shots, the director keeps the camera in unsparing proximity to the often murderous action, rendered all the more potent by Yu Likwai’s crisp digital lensing and Matthieu Lac Lau and Lin Xudong’s sharp editing. Yet just as the horror of senseless real-life violence tends to frustrate and overwhelm any effort to understand it, so these onscreen bloodbaths wind up muddling the script’s attempts at narrative explanation; the characters’ fatal decisions seem by turns inscrutable, inevitable and arbitrary, making for neither effective psychology nor effective sociology.
As usual, Jia excels at finding the poetry in dislocation and decay; the strongest motif here is the sense of these itinerant workers continually and hopelessly on the move, often framed against crumbling ruins and construction zones as they wander in search of a reason to keep going. Densely populated though it must be, this is a China where everyone seems horribly alone.
The film is also rich in cinematic reference points, and not just because of the titular homage to King Hu’s 1971 wuxia classic, “A Touch of Zen”; attentive audiences will find a certain resonance in the casting of Jiang, who starred in Zhang Yimou’s banned mainland epic “To Live,” and Baoqiang, from Li Yang’s brilliant coal-mine thriller “Blind Shaft.” The allusions extend to Jia’s body of work as well: A traveling theater troupe evokes his 2000 epic “Platform,” while a Three Gorges Dam interlude can’t help but recall “Still Life.” Viewed in context, these images feel like hopeful reminders of the past, gestures at an accomplished oeuvre to which this restless talent cannot return quickly enough.