A film about skyrocketing wealth in China and the desperation ordinary people feel to get their share of it, Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” tells four stories strewn across large regions that are little known to most Westerners. Though they barely overlap, the narratives are strung together in a way that suggests a constant, widespread state of unease, as if the abrupt violence seen here is, if only metaphorically, ever present in this rapidly changing country.
The most straightforwardly political episode comes first, putting viewers in mind of economic inequality and near- universal corruption. Happily, this chapter is also the most entertaining, making its populist complaint through the voice of a charismatic malcontent. Dahai (Jiang Wu), a stocky man dressed in an olive-drab overcoat with its collar turned up, has reached his breaking point with the kleptocrats in charge of his home town. When the village chief sold off public property years ago, he promised to distribute profits evenly; instead, he and his superior travel in luxury cars and private planes while citizens debase themselves for sacks of flour.
Dahai is told early on that he was born too late: “In the war years, you’d surely have been a general,” a co-worker says. But now he’s stuck working for a pittance, mocked by the military color of his coat and growing agitated with townsfolk who fail to share his indignation. (When a postal worker refuses to mail his official complaint to Beijing because it’s incompletely addressed, he decides she must be part of the conspiracy.)
Dahai’s screwball passion is such that he even expects his enemies to enable his campaign against them, such as paying for a trip to Beijing so he can personally report their crimes. When he’s brutally beaten for making this suggestion at a public ceremony, his crusade takes a darker turn: Dahai becomes a silent avenger, going on a killing spree with a shotgun draped in a tiger banner.
The three ensuing stories don’t match this one’s body count (nor its level of viewer engagement), but grow increasingly stark in their dramatizations of haves wringing life out of have-nots: We meet a scooter-riding criminal (Wang Baoqiang) who travels the countryside scrounging to support a family who seems embarrassed by him; a woman working at a sauna (Zhao Tao, the director’s wife) who must fight off two customers who take her for a prostitute (outraged that he can’t buy her services, one whips her, over and over and over, with a stack of money); and a youth (Luo Lanshan) who finds work in a luxury brothel while on the run from what amounts to indentured servitude.
Some sequences, particularly Dahai’s Charles Bronson-like rampage and an audacious robbery in the second chapter, depict gunplay that wouldn’t be out of place in a conventional crime film. But Jia offers a stark presentation (no music, few edits) that discourages vicarious thrills; the violence is startling, not cool. When that scooter-riding thief fights off three men trying to ambush him with hand axes, he chases the last one down with his hands on his cycle and his gun clenched between his teeth. The gesture is fierce enough for an action flick. But in a world where more than a “touch of sin” seems required to survive, it’s also strangely practical.
DeFore is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At AFI Silver Theatre. Contains violence and brutality to humans and animals. In Mandarin with subtitles. 125 minutes.