Film Festival Review: A Touch of Sin
Directed by Jia Zhang-ke
There’s a big Cannes gong for best screenplay hanging round this movie’s neck, which to my mind indicates one of those situations when people choose to read far more into something than is really there. Director Jia Zhang-ke has dramatised four real-life crimes in contemporary China, in a way that supposedly adds up to an “extraordinarily forthright condemnation of the corruption within China’s economic miracle”. I didn’t get that.
There’s a man so fed up with official corruption, and so frustrated that his friends and colleagues try to keep their distance from him (clearly, they know he’s a weirdo), that he gets a shotgun and starts killing people. A young thug shoots a woman in the street for her handbag. A receptionist in a brothel kills a man with a knife when he attacks her… Apparently in China, shit happens.
To make all of this into a parable requires some larger pattern. Yes, it’s not surprising that corruption breeds resentment. Nor that bad things can happen when people are supposed to aspire to brash materialism while their lives are consumed by demeaning, low-paid work.
And it’s not a lie to say those things are the condition of life for millions of people in China. But this movie is not a compelling picture of the dark side of a dream: rather, the tragedies it depicts seem like the kind of thing that will always happen anywhere.
There’s a moment in the film when a character watches a TV report of the 2011 high-speed rail crash in Wengzhou. The enquiry into that crash exposed the appalling extent to which corruption has blighted the Chinese economic boom, and is a major symbolic event for many Chinese. One presumes Jia Zhang-ke has referenced it in order to make clear what he thinks his film is about. I thought it did the reverse, pointing not to a link between the supposed big theme and the sad reality of the individual lives, but to a yawning gap between the two.
A Touch of Sin is attractively shot and well paced, and on the whole the acting is non-melodramatic – a style which keeps you engaged with the story while never really letting you connect to the characters. The violence, though, breaks free of that reticence in brutal and bloody moments. It’s not a bad film, but it does take a lot for granted.