(Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)
I caught this film during a run of "Overlooked and Underseen" films, a series at the excellent CineFamily theater (my first time there, and I was impressed and pleased.) As a fan of Jia's since viewing his visionary Still Life, I'd been meaning to see A Touch of Sin after hearing that it would receive US distribution, but had missed it the first time around. Saturday evening, I got lucky. The film is a trove of wonders, a symphony of strange yet fruitful juxtapositions: ethereal beauty and gory violence, lapidary realism and rich symbolism, anguish and humor.
It was also my first truly satisfying theater experience of a digitally shot and projected movie. As with any medium, it takes an artist to make what is new seem timeless; never before (in my experience) have the idiosyncrasies of digital image capture been taken to such poetic heights. Jia uses what usually amount to limitations - the stilted, too-sharp crispness, the stinginess in range and depth of light, and the slight queasiness of digital's motion blur - to produce a panoply of moods and effects. Jia's visual taste - in terms of color, composition, movement, and space - is, for my money, unparalleled in contemporary cinema, so it's no surprise that he can summon such nuance from the technology.
The film comprises a series of semi-connected vignettes, all of them variations on a theme: the extent to which conditions in modern-day China have created such rampant dehumanization that violence has become endemic. Jia's vision is driven by fury; his sympathy for the downtrodden, forgotten, abused, and disenfranchised of China is palpable, as is his rage at the systemic corruption that's led to such an abject state of affairs. But the film is no revenge fantasy. Jia keeps his feet planted firmly in a moral stance. He retains a certain detachment throughout; a fluid awareness that deftly moves between the political, spiritual, aesthetic, sexual, and symbolic realms.
Violence, in A Touch of Sin, is everywhere, and yet remains an aberration, a flaw in the design of the universe. The body count could rival that of a slasher film - I lost count of how may characters are dispatched over the running time. But in Jia's view, the violence is symptomatic of a deeper history of abuse. He shows us with the camera: there is the violence that cuts roads through the mountains, that sets high-speed trains on a collision course with each other, than strains familial bonds to the breaking point, that crowds young men and women into factories and dormitories like cattle in a feedlot. Animals, here, are used to resonant symbolic ends - from obvious touchstones such as the abused mule (a nod to Au Hazard Balthazar,) to live oxen being driven to market in the back of a pickup truck, to snakes as part of a traveling roadshow. (Other members of the Chinese Zodiac - a monkey and a tiger - appear in key moments). What's suggested, most importantly, is the destruction of humanity; tradition, history, community, and even love aren't spared. The China of today, Jia avers, is a perfect storm of widespread regression. And yet the animals also reflect what is lacking in this world. They serve as a rebuke: strikingly alive and aware in comparison to the downward gazes and muted gestures that seem to characterize so many of the people.
In A Touch of Sin, the sin has roots, and they can be traced. The violence, when it erupts in bloodshed, is an expression of something long repressed. It harkens back to old conflicts, grievances that have gone unredressed. Elemental forces of destruction have been awakened, unleashed on the world. A breaking point has been reached - people have been punished for being people. The sin of oppression, of the denial of justice, always concentrates at the bottom of a society. And eventually, after enough has been collected, the dam breaks. Jia, in his subtle, undeniable way, has fashioned a revolutionary film. Not a call to action, but a cri de cœur, a chorus of righteous anger, crafted with incendiary artistry.