As a person that has grown up watching tons of Japanese cult cinema, pre-Hays code Hollywood films and a plethora of other cinema genres, cinematic violence is nothing new to me. Not that I’ve become desensitized, but I find that cinematic violence can be a liberating form of expression for a filmmaker. Jia Zhangke has used a form of cinematic violence in A Touch of Sin, that is rarely ever touched upon, the true depiction and ramifications of such vile acts. The film follows four different people, which were all based on real life incidents, that took place all over China. Each of the film’s stories intersect in a way, but are all linked to the violent reactions that erupt from the various characters. Jia Zhangke’s work on A Touch of Sin is the work of a cinematic genius, one that invites us to look at the current landscape of modern China and explore it through a people that have had enough.
Jia’s narrative moves from a rural setting, to the cityscape, as A Touch of Sin progresses. Each setting slightly different than the last and each circumstance different from one another, yet the common through line is that each of these people that commit these acts are tired of being taken advantage of. The opening scene, shows a person who’s about to be held up by some highway thugs, who takes out a gun and shoots them all. The character comes back again, but while we’re unable to process the random act initially, Jia gives us an understanding of his and everyone else’s circumstances. The beautiful thing about A Touch of Sin is that it creates a foundation for every action in the film, that makes it feel realized. Even minor characters actions, give a sense of the world that Jia has built around his view point of modern China. It certainly seems that he doesn’t condone such despicable acts and yet, Jia Zhangke makes it point to try to understand the origin of violence from each of these people.
The films cast sells the film, as well as the technicians that have supported A Touch of Sin behind the scenes. Wu Jiang, Baoquiang Wang, Zhao Tao and Lanshan Luo give incredible performances within the ensemble. Each of them represent different aspects of Chinese life and to see how those lives are altered, when driven to violence is something that each of them uniquely offer. Cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai breathes life into his imagery of China, through capturing beautiful earth tones for the rural aspects and colder, darker tones for the urban portions, we’re treated with a true landscape of what Chinese life is like. The elegant editing by Mathieu Laclau and Xudong Lin create a slow pace throughout the film, that intricately weaves from one story into another. Both Lin and Laclau hold on moments of violence in the film, in order to make the viewer uncomfortable enough, in order to understand the ramifications of violence in the film.
In the final moments of the film, a reenactment of a famous Chinese play is being performed, where a line is uttered, “Do you know your sin?”, as one of the characters watches. Zhangke explores that all of mankind is capable to “sin”, but its a matter of how both parties in these situations are guilty and how everyone has the potential to do something horrible, given their circumstances. While it may be difficult to stomach, A Touch of Sin is a beautiful work of art by Zhangke and should be sought out by those who are willing to explore this level of violence or wish to see how modern China is effected by things like this. Highly Recommended!