Zhang Ke Jia’s A Touch of Sin is one of those films that will surely (has already) provoke. It’s violent and cold, but not necessarily dispassionate. It’s gorgeously shot, filled with occasional wry humor, and overall just plain angry.
Unlike other modern, slow-burn meditations on violence (the first three that come to mind: Revanche, Funny Games, Simon Killer), A Touch of Sin sets out to neither moralize nor prod. Maybe the closest cousin I can think of is Aurora, an excellent Romanian film from Cristi Puiu. But even that film follows only one pro/antagonist and his slow descent into violence stemming from the insufferable and dehumanizing conditions of his modern surroundings (digression: Tati’s films were basically about the same thing, but minus the violence. Hulot was always bumbling with modern conveniences. He too had a bit of a descent, but not in the in-vogue style of current European or “European-styled” (a meaningless title at this point) paralyzing and stifling cinema. I’m a fan of much of this style, but it’ll be a nice time when the circle comes back around and the type of playful-on-the-surface narrative that Tati so favored comes back on trend).
The things that I like about A Touch of Sin are what sets it apart. It’s the classic multiple-strand story, but the interweaving is never on the nose. In fact, it’s hardly there at all – two people on the same bus, an explosion that is then mentioned towards the end of the film. It’s not really meant to totally interlock, in fact. Those connections are loose on purpose: the country, China, in this case, has varied reasons to drive people to violence (including self-violence; the country had, for awhile, a high suicide rate), none of which must necessarily be epidemic in the sense that they’re all self-contained.
I also like how Jia just throws us into the midst of many narratives, particularly the first one. We’re not treated – sometimes – to a long line of causality, but rather we find the character already towards the end of his/her rope.
Some of the violence in A Touch of Sin is sensationalist. A would-be-masseuse scene feels pulled from a samurai film – it’s shot in such a dramatic way that so departs from the mise-en-scene to that point that it feels like a dream…but it’s not. While watching this scene I felt like I was missing something. Is this a reference I don’t get? It was my least favorite part of the film and the closest that it came to dipping into American revenge plots; which is my final reason for really liking the film. There’s no huge catharsis (that one moment aside) from death in here. It’s either sudden, or sorrowful, or pathetic, or crazy.
Jia’s technique is also different from many of the aforementioned films which favor long takes. Jia has his share, but he cuts and moves his camera often. Of those mentioned it would be closest to Revanche but even that film creeps along much more slowly, using a camera that tries to pierce a character’s thoughts. Jia lets the action unfold, rarely settling on that frame that pushes into a troubled character or leaves them on-frame in static long shot for an extended period of time to allow their emotional weight to drop into the film.