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Director: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Wu Jiang, Lanshan Luo, Li Meng
Length: 133 min
Label: Kino Lorber
Release Date: April 14, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Audio: Mandarin Chinese: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- Preview of up-coming Kino releases
Emerging from the Sixth Generation movement of Chinese cinema, Jia Zhangke’s career has been marked by problems with Chinese censors. Releasing his first three films independent of the censors, it wasn’t until his fourth picture, The World, that Zhangke was legally allowed to distribute his films in his home country. With A Touch of Sin (2013) Zhangke is perhaps at his most controversial. The film, which centers around four loosely connected stories about violence, has yet to see an official Chinese release, making it Zhangke’s first film since before The World to be denied release within China. Perhaps shocking, A Touch of Sin has not been denied release because of the on-screen violence (a significant departure from Zhangke’s more previous and reserved pictures), but because of the less-than-flattering view the film poses against the current state of China’s social climate. It is Zhangke’s unrelenting (even ambiguous) take on politics and violence, however, which makes A Touch of Sin a masterpiece. The film went on to be nominated for Palm d’Or and win Best Screenplay at Cannes. Now, at last, A Touch of Sin has been given the glorious Blu-Ray treatment by Kino Lorber and is available for purchase in the US.
Loosely based on a series of true events in recent Chinese History, as well as inspired by stories rooted in the heroic martial arts genre (wuxia), A Touch of Sin depicts four people, whose lives are altered when mounting social and economic pressures force them into violent acts. The film opens in the desolate Chinese mountainside, depicting a solitary motorcyclist riding through a vast and empty roadside. The film continues to follow the cyclist until a frantic pedestrian abruptly stops him. The pedestrian’s motives turn sour, as his cohorts emerge and attempt to rob the motorcyclist. Without emotion, the cyclist reveals a gun and proceeds to shoot all of the thieves. The small murder spree seems to have no effect on the cyclist, as he continues down the road he started, exiting the film for what we learn is only a short time.
The open sets up the film’s interests; a brief examination of the factors that can drive people to commit acts of violence. Since the film has not aligned us with either of the characters, viewers are able to judge the actions of all parties involved, not just the thieves but the motorcyclist’s too. What are factors that lead these young men to thievery? How much does it take for a person to resort to violence? These are the questions the film asks; the concerns that absorb the film.The first segment of the film revolves around Dahai (Jiang Wu), a downtrodden member of a rural mining community. As the film divulges, Dahai is well liked but carries an air of failure. He talks big, but his friends and his fellow community do not seem to take his threats seriously. Dahai’s concerns lie with political corruption between the local politicians and the mining company that controls the town. Failing to address the corruption through official means, and obsessed with a sense of justice, Dahai’s recourse is elimination of the corrupted members of his community. The second, and most haunting segment of the film, introduces the return of the lone motorcyclist from the film’s open. We learn that the man, Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), has a family, and upon returning for the Chinese New Year is inundated by the minutia of domestic living. Disgruntled by economic concerns Zhou San turns to murder and robbery. The brilliance of the segment comes in the manner in which Zhangke presents Zhou San’s motivation. While the mounting economic pressures are clear, it is more than suggested that the act of killing is a thrill Zhou San welcomes. The subtle nature of Zhangke’s assessment of lofty psychological concerns is a rare cinematic treat. The third segment features the film’s only female ‘hero,’ Xiao Yu. Involved in an affair with a married man, Xiao Yu gives her lover an ultimatum of six months to either leave his wife or end their relationship. Later, accosted by a small gang led by her lover’s wife, Xiao Yu is viciously attacked. Returning to work, Xiao Yu is again attacked. This attack comes in the form of a suitor who, believing Xiao Yu to be a prostitute, demands sex. Angered when she denies him his request he attacks her, forcing Xiao Yu to defend herself by any means necessary. It is in Xiao Yu’s story, as well as Dahai’s, that the film most exploits the conventions of the martial arts genre. It can be said that through this homage A Touch of Sin glorifies their violent actions. This assessment, however, is reductive and misunderstands the subtle nature of the film’s message. In the final segment of the film, Zhangke returns to the dismal tone that marks the second. In the film’s fourth story the violence takes on a different form than the previous segments, as a young man (Zhang Jiayi) is turned from corrupt workplace to corrupt workplace. Momentary happiness is achieved when he lands what appears to be steady and legitimate income. After becoming romantically interested in a co-worker (a prostitute employed by his company to entertain powerful businessmen) his brief glimpse at happiness is shattered when he experiences a sexual interaction between her and a client. Leaving the now disenchanted workplace, and pressured by his family to send home money, he again finds himself in the crushing atmosphere of factory work. Internalizing the external forces weighing on his life, the young man’s violent actions differ greatly from the others. Photographed in a distanced, almost alienating manner, the film forces the viewer to accept his fate in an uncomfortable manner. His scene of violence is among the most settling in film history. In the film’s epilogue, we again are met with Xiao Yu. Cutting the hair that visually connected her with the wuxia heroes she is modeled after, Xiao Yu now appears broken; diminished. In full-circle, the film returns to the mining company that controls Dahai’s village, where Xiao Yu is now attempting to obtain work.
The message of the film remains strong: the effects of capitalism, and the political and corporate corruption that it breeds, destroy the qualities of life and breed violence. It could be argued that the film focuses more on the rather insignificant victims of violence (the corrupt politicians, etc.) than it does on the structures that create them, but this assumption would be wrong. Through the film’s epilogue Zhangke connects all of the stories, returning them to the workplace. Through this connection it is made clear that it is the structure that is being critiqued, not only the individuals that are products of their environment. In addition, none of the perpetrators of violence are granted catharsis. The only character that we return to after their violent acts is Xiao Yu, depicted as no better off than before. The film delivers a heavy and fatalistic message about modern Chinese problems, a message that has blocked the film’s release. Supporting the central theme is Zhangke’s strong directorial vision, which carries the film. Even if you are not absorbed by the film’s statement, Zhangke has supplied enough visual momentum to keep the film afloat.
Shot digitally, the film is presented in a manner that looks and feels extremely natural. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 (Anamorphic), the film has that beautiful wide-cinematic look. The colors are vibrant and deep, without losing a sense of dreariness in the grey tones. The tonal differences that the film aims to highlight between nature (bright and saturated) and industry (dark and slightly desaturated/cold) are enhanced by Kino’s dedication to the film’s picture. There are no signs of sharpening or digital artifacts present. The picture is clear and crisp, just the way Zhangke intended it.
The 5.1 DTS-HD mix of A Touch of Sin sounds superb. The dynamic range between the film’s quietest and loudest moments is not only heard but felt. The dialogue is crisp, the music is vibrant and haunting, and the sound effects give that extra jolt needed for the in-home theatre experience.
It is a bit disappointing to see that the only extras for the film are previews for other Kino up-coming releases. Good for the Kino-buff, but sad for any fan of the film eager to learn more about the production. Hopefully, there will be a more comprehensive edition released in the future.
A Touch of Sin is a masterpiece. It manages to be graphically violent without losing its meditation on the Chinese cultural climate. Due to the subject nature, pacing of the story, and utilization of genre-hybridity A Touch of Sin is Zhangke’s most accessible film. It is a film demands the viewer’s attention; there isn’t a dry moment. The picture and sound were given an excellent transfer, making the Blu-Ray a top-notch cinematic experience. The only negative critique that could be made is in the lack of extra features, but even despite this the package is worth the price tag.