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‘A Touch Of Sin’ – A New Form of Martial arts Cinema

Jia Zhangke rightfully walked away with a Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 for A Touch of Sin, an intricately plotted exploration of violence and corruption in contemporary China. A Touch of Sin is a grim but poetic crime film, which the writer-director based on four shocking and true headline-making events while browsing the Internet for stories of violent crimes censored by the government. These stories reveal a growing restlessness between China’s new ruling class and the working class and paint an artful condemnation of the Chinese state capitalism. All four stories center around tragedies of a common man or woman, all set in different regions of China, and all ending in bloodshed. The protagonists in each of its subsets are driven to violent ends while living in the world’s fastest-growing economy.

The first story follows Dahai, a small-town miner (Jiang Wu). Enraged by widespread corruption by the local village chief, he decides to take justice into his own hands via a shotgun massacre. The second and most nihilistic story follows a rootless migrant worker named Zhao San (Wang Baoqiang). The trigger-happy, motorcycle-riding thug drifts across the country committing crimes against the nouveau riche. Following this comes A Touch of Sin’s most thrilling episode: Jia’s wife, and frequent collaborator, Zhao Tao plays Zheng Xiaoyu, a spa receptionist who is pushed around by an abusive client. The story takes a deadly turn after he beats her with a stack of dollar bills. The final installment traces the decline and fall of a young factory worker (Luo Lanshan) as he goes from one discouraging job to the next, each placing him in humiliating circumstances. At one point, he finds love—so to speak—with one of his co-workers (Li Vivien), only to later discover she sells her body to old businessmen (one of whom is played by the director). To further emphasize a society falling apart, A Touch of Sin also makes background mention of several other real-life disasters, including a mine explosion and a deadly train collision. The chapters are linked mostly by theme, although sometimes characters will reappear in other installments. Meanwhile, the idea of moving between towns and cities without a fixed location is one of the most subtle ways in which Jia gracefully interconnects these four tales. Each character is driven to an emotional breaking point, and eventually, each takes the law into their own hands.

In telling these stories, Jia takes inspiration from two forms of traditional Chinese storytelling. He is quoted as saying that he considers A Touch of Sin to be a martial arts film about contemporary China. Meanwhile, he intercuts street performances of famous Chinese operas. While rife with these references, A Touch of Sin also feels very American and inspired by several genres, specifically Westerns and pulpy crime films. Much like his previous work, the characters in A Touch of Sin are restless and desperate, wanting only to escape the harsh realities of their everyday life – and whatever happiness they might feel is fleeting.

Geographically, each sequence inches closer to the country’s southeast, home to construction zones, factories, and small villages where ordinary people barely get by, while earning minimum wages. The use of digital cinematography by frequent collaborator Yu Likwai helps convey a sense of documentary-like immediacy; characters feel as if they live in a world that’s so rapidly changing, they can never catch up. Throughout the movie, several animals are seen and used as metaphors. When the receptionist is beaten over the head, the scene recalls the similar abuse of a horse being whipped repeatedly by his owner. When Dahai picks up a shotgun, we see the image of a tiger in the background. And when Xiao Yu visits a sideshow, several snakes slither around the young woman’s feet. A Touch of Sin ends on a note that is anything but hopeful; the four protagonists who feel imprisoned by China’s extreme social changes may never find a way out. Unlike the goldfish released in a stream; a snake crossing the highway, or the horse who breaks away from his abusive owner, these four drifters may never again feel freedom or know happiness.

  • Ricky D
Written By

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the Sordid Cinema Podcast and NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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