A Touch Of Sin Blu-ray review

Chinese director Jia Zhangke's film A Touch Of Sin arrives on Blu-ray. It's a violent and gripping piece of work, Dan writes...

Chinese cinema has long been a battleground between its most progressive, socially-conscious directors and the authorities, keen to promote a very specific vision of the country. After a period of considerable freedom during the 1980s, post-Tiananmen China saw increased censorship and pressure on filmmakers to produce commercial, culturally-positive films. As a result, many younger directors moved underground, embracing the emerging digital technology to produce independent movies well away from the prying eyes of the state, but with little of the exposure they would have previously enjoyed.

Over the past decade, a willingness to compromise has been seen on both sides, and some of these now-established directors have begun to work with state approval. The most prominent is Jia Zhangke, whose features and documentaries have achieved considerable international acclaim. A Touch Of Sin is his latest movie, and while supposedly approved by state censors, its explosive content has meant that Zhangke is still negotiating an official release in mainland China.

The film is a hard-hitting blend of social realism and the sort of blood-splattered violence you’d normally to expect to find in the films of Zhangke’s Hong Kong-based action contemporaries. It comprises four stories, based on real, recent events, all of which focus on ordinary Chinese citizens pushes to extraordinary lengths by their vulnerable positions in society. In the first, an aging man in a small mining town seeks answers from the corrupt officials he believes have driven his community into destitution. The second sees an inscrutable drifter resigned to a life of criminality to provide for his estranged wife and child. The third story focuses on a woman trapped in both a doomed affair with a married man and a demeaning job at a seedy massage parlour, while in the final strand a combination of loneliness, unrequited love and soul-crushing manual labour becomes all too much for one young man.

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that none of this ends happily. Zhangke has been criticised in some quarters for A Touch Of Sin’s violent content, a world away from his more refined early films like Still Life and The World. But sometimes it takes a confrontational approach to make a point. While you would hardly call this film a subtle one, it does have much to say about the corrupting influence of power and how society’s underclasses have been swept aside in China’s race to economic dominance. It is hard to sympathise with some of the bloody acts that his protagonists engage in, but it’s a testament to Zhangke’s skills as writer and director that we do at least partially understand why they have been driven to take such drastic measures.

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Much of the film’s power derives from the detached, observational style, which documents events while offering little in the way of editorial comment. Music is minimal, performances naturalistic and the camerawork and editing never draw attention to themselves, even when depicting some striking imagery – a blood-splattered woman walking dazed through the night, or the bizarre brothel where the rich are pleasured by girls in Mao-era military uniforms. Zhangke’s approach is no doubt informed by his extensive documentary work, all of which makes the eruptions of violence so arresting when they occur.

Even at 130 minutes, there is never very long to get to know the characters before we move onto the next loosely-linked vignette. But backstory is largely irrelevant – these characters are cyphers, and Zhangke’s screenplay (which won at Cannes last year) is a masterclass in narrative economy. There are no great twists, and by the second story it becomes more-or-less clear where each tale is going. But that doesn’t stop A Touch Of Sin being a powerful state-of-the-nation address – not always an easy watch perhaps, but nevertheless a vital, gripping vision of a system teetering on the edge.

A Touch Of Sin is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Arrow Films.

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4 out of 5