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A Touch of Sin

Jia Zhangke deservedly won best screenplay honours at the Cannes for A Touch of Sin, an intricately plotted tetraptych about the nasty and brutish conditions of life in contemporary China.

For most viewers, though, the subtleties in Jia’s narrative will take second place to the blood and gore he puts up on the screen. People are mad as hell in this film, and the protagonists in each of its four sub-sets – a miner, a migrant worker, a receptionist at a spa, a factory worker – are driven, by either despair or existential recklessness, to commit acts of destruction against others and themselves.

While rife with references to Chinese street opera and martial-arts cinema, A Touch of Sin also feels very American, like a Cormac McCarthy novel, the tableaus lensed by ace cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai evoke the tensions of the personal and the impersonal you find in the photographs of Jeff Wall and Edward Burtynsky.

All four stories are tragedies of the common man or woman, set in different regions of China. In the first, Dahai, a blunt-spoken former miner, shotgun in hand, rebels against the greed and corruption of the local village chief and his mine-owning crony.

Zhou San, enroute to his mother’s 70th birthday party and a brief reunion with his wife and young son, has shot and killed three axe-wielding robbers on the highway. Zhou’s saga forms the heart of the second story; he’s a bandit, too – a sort of pistol-packing Chinese Baby Face Nelson in a Chicago Bulls tuque, drifting around the country, stealing from (and murdering) the nouveau riche, then sending the proceeds home.

The third stars Zheng Xiaoyu, a sauna/spa receptionist who’s been waiting far too long for her lover to divorce his wife. Events take a murderous turn at the spa when she rebuffs the sexual advances of a client who beats her with a fat wad of yuans.

Jia’s last yarn, perhaps the most poignant in the omnibus, traces the decline and fall of a sweet-faced, destitute worker as he flits from one alienating job to another, including a stint as a waiter in a brothel/club where he tries to woo one of the prostitutes.

Melodramatic to be sure, but Jia grounds it with all sorts of textures, close observation and attention to gesture. As a result, you have a compulsively watchable hybrid of naturalism and neo-Peckinpah splatter, with deftly deployed flourishes of the folkloric and the surreal. Epic and intimate, A Touch of Sin finally feels as big and complex, as contradictory and sad as, well, China.

- James Adams, Globe & Mail

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