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CANNES – The widening chasm of social inequality separating the moneyed powerbrokers from the struggling masses – not to mention the despair and violence bred by that disparity – is a subject of saddening universality. Exploring those thematic lines in A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding), Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke only occasionally strikes chords that resonate, despite having distinguished himself as one of the most perceptive chroniclers of his country’s transition into 21st century nationhood in films like Platform and The World.
The English-language title of his seventh narrative feature is a play on King Hu’s 1971 martial arts epic, A Touch of Zen. And while that seems more a homage than a significant structural inspiration, there are certainly bloody genre elements here that are new to Jia’s work. But tonal inconsistency, lethargic pacing and a shortage of fresh insight dilute the storytelling efficacy of this quartet of loosely interconnected episodes involving ordinary people pushed over the edge.
As always, the visual compensations are considerable thanks to regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, whose eye for arresting detail is equally sharp whether trained on natural landscapes, assembly-line industrial communities, bleak mining towns or the crumbling remnants of China’s past.
While the distinctions among the four far-flung principal settings and their various dialects will mean little to audiences unversed in Chinese geography and linguistics, a strong sense does emerge of a rootless populace displaced by sweeping cultural change and economic necessity. When one character living paycheck-to-paycheck responds to the suggestion of trying his luck abroad by saying that the rest of the world is broke, and that’s why so many are descending on China, the sardonic edge to Jia’s observation will be lost on nobody.
The film opens with a punchy bout of bloodshed as three kids brandishing hatchets hold up passing motorcyclist Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) on a stretch of lonely road. But they are foiled when he calmly pulls out a gun and dispatches them. That drifter, with his taste for firearms and robbery, resurfaces later in the least focused of the film’s four narrative strands.
More satisfying is the story of coalmining company employee Dahai (Jiang Wu), a disgruntled former classmate of the corporate boss, who, along with the village officials, has forgotten his promises of profit sharing while whizzing around on his private jet. Having failed to convince the firm’s accountant to expose its financial iniquities, Dahai disrupts the media moment of the chief’s return to town, met by a welcoming committee of ceremonial drummers and workers incentivized to look happy. In one of the film’s more startling bursts of violence, he gets reprimanded with a metal spade to the head.
The other compelling section has regular Jia muse Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu, a receptionist in a sauna who has given her married lover an ultimatum either to divorce his wife or end their relationship. Jia sets up the knife in her rucksack a little too pointedly. But there’s a gripping momentum to the accumulation of indignities that lead her to use it on an arrogant massage customer who refuses to accept that she’s strictly front desk-only.
The fourth and final chapter concerns Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a feckless young man who inadvertently causes an accident and is to be docked for the salary of his injured factory co-worker for the duration of his recovery. This prompts him to flee to a succession of short-lived jobs – including one as a greeter at a high-end sex club called The Golden Age, featuring hostesses in sexy versions of Chinese military uniforms.
In that concluding section, glimpses of tech factories in the international free-enterprise town of Dongguan inevitably conjure associations with the controversial plants where Apple products are manufactured. Jia emphasizes the dehumanizing aspect of these environments by showing a grim worker-housing complex called Oasis of Prosperity. The fact that wealth and influence are accessible only to the privileged few is acknowledged throughout the film with a borderline heavy hand.
The four fictionalized plot strands have their roots in real-life tabloid cases involving three murders and a suicide. But as assembled here, they make for a schematic narrative patchwork with scant emotional involvement. Many similar points about the growing discontent in post-reform China have been made more trenchantly by Jia in his other films, and the use of traditional opera as a mocking counterpoint to contemporary experience now seems somewhat pat.
Despite solid performances and many haunting images, there’s a disappointing banality to the film overall. Either the Dahai or the Xiao Yu story, both of which end with the protagonists unleashing carnage and mayhem, might have benefited from more robust development to make a standalone drama. But incorporated into this too-diffuse examination of escalating violence in a recklessly modernized society, their impact is dulled.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Zhao Tao, Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Luo Lanshan, Zhang Jiayi, Li Meng
Production companies: Xstream Pictures, Office Kitano, Shanghai Film Group Corporation, in association with Shanxi Film & Television Group, Bandai Visual, Bitters End
Director-screenwriter: Jia Zhang-ke
Producer: Shozo Ichiyama
Executive producers: Jia Zhang-ke, Masayuki Mori, Ren Zhonglun
Director of photography: Yu Lik-wai
Production designer: Liu Weixin
Music: Lim Giong
Editors: Matthieu Laclau, Lin Xudong
No rating, 133 minutes.
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