Wednesday, March 12, 2014


If you were to watch a montage of only the violent parts from A Touch Of Sin you might think it was something along the lines of Death Wish or Taxi Driver. In the opening moments of the film, one of the four main characters rapidly shoots a gang of hatchet-wielding thugs without blinking an eye as if he were Bernard Goetz. Later on in the film, another one of the main characters is pushed over the edge, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and goes on a shooting spree where almost no one in his path is spared. But A Touch Of Sin is hardly just a shoot 'em up style movie. It's an anthology film about corruption, greed, exploitation, and the misuse of power within modern day China. Director Jia Zhangke just uses the type of violence found in a Takeshi Kitano film as a way to get our attention. Like The Battle Of Algiers, Z & Carlos before it, A Touch Of Sin is another layered socio-political story with plenty of bloodshed (I also wouldn't be surprised if Haneke's 71 Fragments Of Chronology Of Chance was a major influence on this given the similar subject matter, tone & structure of both films). 
I admit that I slept on A Touch Of Sin last year. On paper it didn't look that appealing - A "message movie" where various characters are all in some way connected to one another? I hate to come off like a snob but that really sounded like something I'd already seen a million times in the 90's alone. I also read a few reviews that compared A Touch Of Sin to the work of Tarantino (an instant turnoff for me these days). But I should have known that any modern Asian movie with a touch of violence is automatically going to draw some comparison to Tarantino in the same way that anything "weird" or "strange" is going to get compared to David Lynch. Step your game up movie critics!
This turned out to be one of the best movies of last year that I didn't end up seeing until this year (along with Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt).

A Touch Of Sin is broken up in to four separate stories...

In the first story we follow "Dahai" - A miner who’s grown beyond frustrated with his employers exploiting him & his fellow co-workers. After taking a beating that leaves him in the hospital, courtesy of the people he works for, Dahai decides to take vengeance with a shotgun...
The second story focuses on "Zhou" - a mysterious migrant worker/vigilante who has a fascination with guns & violence.
Story #3 follows "Xiao Yu" - a receptionist at a massage parlor/bathhouse who’s beaten and almost raped until she finally defends herself.
The final story is about a teenager, "Xioa Hui", who quits his job at a sweatshop in order to work in a hotel (which is really a front for an upscale brothel) but he ultimately succumbs to the pressure of having to support his mother & siblings.

Clockwise from top left: Stories Dahai, Zhou, Xiao Yu & Xiao Hui
The four stories that make up A Touch Of Sin are somewhat connected, but it’s not what you think. The characters don’t step out of one story and cross paths with a character from another story like in Pulp Fiction, Happiness or Magnolia. Instead, Jia Zhangke makes spiritual connections between his characters. In the first story, there's a seemingly random scene of a man whipping a horse repeatedly on the side of a road which is mirrored later on in the third story where another man repeatedly beats a woman with a wad of cash over & over in the same manner. Both scenes eventually end in explosive violence. In the fourth story, we see the young protagonist take the train from one town to another in order to find a new job, while in the previous story; one of the supporting characters boards another train on the same railway that eventually has a derailment. And as I said earlier, the main characters in the first & second stories (who are the only two main characters to share minor screen time together) go on shooting sprees for various reasons. Social media & the sex industry are also recurring elements throughout the film and all four main characters are a part of the Chinese working class.

Some of the murders in A Touch Of Sin may seem random & senseless at first but it all serves a purpose at the end of the day. For a moment I found myself questioning why Jia Zhangke makes violence the final outcome for all of his characters. I understand there are cases where people feel that their backs are against the wall and have no more options, but resorting to randomly shooting (and stabbing) people seemed a bit over the top. Did he just not know how to write a good script and in order to make up for it he just threw in random moments of violence?
After the recent news of the retired Florida cop shooting a man in a movie theater over an argument about texting, I immediately thought about my love for the scene in Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America where the two main vigilantes shoot up a movie theater because the audience was acting unruly, and I felt a little guilty for enjoying that. Violence in film has become a mirror to what’s going on in real life now more than ever and it's honestly turning me off. But then I quickly realized that's just it - A Touch Of Sin is in fact a mirror of what’s going in the world and it needed to be made. I eventually came to discover that all four stories are based on true events ripped from the headlines of various Chinese news reports. With the exception of our mysterious central figure from the second story, all of our main characters have truly reached their boiling point and see no other choice but to resort to violence (or suicide in the case of one of them). If two men are forcing you to have sex when you don't want too, like in the case of the third story, and no one is around to help, you really have no choice but to take matters in to your own hands. If you're just a teenager (which is essentially still just a kid) faced with the pressure of supporting not only yourself, but your demanding mother back home, and you make very little money to begin with, you're eventually going to lose hope like the teenage protagonist in the fourth story.

the have-nots in A Touch Of Sin
Jia Zhangke steers clear of the Dardenne Brothers approach in exploring the poor and/or working class by not making all the characters out to be perfect, angelic do-gooders who just get shit on (we'll actually be getting in to the Dardenne brothers next month). These are real people who make poor choices, are dislikeable and sometimes do dishonest things. Dahai, although 100% on point with his frustration of being exploited, is very stubborn & somewhat unpleasant, while Xiao Yu is having an affair with a man knowing that he's married. But at the end of the day we still sympathize with these people. This is something I wish Ryan Coogler did more with Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station. True, we saw an imperfect side to him, but overall, Grant's portrayal still felt a little a too perfect to the point where it taints the atrocity that actually happened to him.

Parts of this film are a tad bit film schoolish and some people might find certain scenes to be random for the sake of being random, but it’s the overall picture Jia Zhangke paints that makes A Touch Of Sin so great. It’s a violent, heartbreaking & complex story. There's multiple scenes that'll have you either choked up, enraged or both (the scene of Xiao Hui getting chewed out by his mother over the phone for not earning enough money is enough to make you wanna cry).
One might think A Touch Of Sin is just a reflection of Chinese society (and it is for the most part) but given the world's relationship with China (the products we all use in our daily lives that come from over there), to the ridiculous amount of gun violence plaguing America these days, this is a film anyone from any culture could appreciate.
Money, power, greed, materialism & corruption were all huge themes in cinema last year (spilling over in to this year) with films like The Wolf Of Wall Street, Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers & American Hustle. A Touch Of Sin fits right in with those films but what also sets it apart is that Zhangke actually shines a light on and gives a voice to the exploited & less fortunate. While the aforementioned films only focused on the exploiters & hustlers, A Touch Of Sin actually focuses on the have-nots. If anything, this is the ant-Wolf Of Wall Street. There's a quick scene towards the end of Scorsese's latest film were agent Denham (the FBI agent who busts Jordan Belfort) rides the subway and we get a glimpse of all the every day, working class and/or poor people who are either director or indirectly affected by those abusive people in power that Belfort essentially represents. I found this to be mildly insulting because in a 3+ hour film, we only got about 20-30 seconds of light shed on the struggling people of America while the rest of the film was dedicated to the crazy antics of these glutenous rich people who abuse their power. Jia Zhangke does the opposite and gives the powerless people a voice.


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