A man sits on his motorbike, tossing a tomato up and down in his hand, while surveying the macabre aftermath of a motorway accident. Minutes later, he takes a bite and a vehicle explodes. This eerie scene serves as the introduction and tone-setter to A Touch Of Sin, the latest movie by maverick Chinese auteur Jia Zhang Ke.
Ke is an outlaw of Eastern cinema: while his peers have either sold out to the West or curried favour with their own Government, he remains a thorn in the side of Chinese arts, telling dark stories with or without the state’s approval. Though it’s been out since last year, A Touch Of Sin has yet be released in its own country, and it’s easy to see why. This is a dark, complex and angry film that has nothing positive to say about life in contemporary China, or the regime that oversees it.
The film comprises four interwoven vignettes, each telling the story of a character driven to their limit by desperation. In every story, the cause of this desperation is linked to money. Each segment is based on actual people and events. Ke’s vision of China is worlds away from the bright lights and spectacular cityscapes of Shanghai and Beijing. The country is depicted as a vast basin of hopelessness, equal parts hostile and indifferent, as ordinary men and women struggle to make sense of their lives amid a world in which the odds are stacked against them from birth. A miner carries out a grim vendetta against his peers and superiors. A jilted lover is assaulted in a brothel. A sociopath drifts from one locale to another, leaving death in his wake. A factory worker struggles to find a way out of the futile drudge that his existence has become. There is no promise of a happy ending, and to simply survive is all these people can hope for.
It’s a bleak film, but an absolutely essential one. Ke is clearly sickened by what has happened to his country, where a rigid political doctrine has given way to hypocrisy, money worship and a horrifying gap in standards of living. As Ke sees it, the people at the top have it made and anyone beneath them is the victim of some grim cosmic lottery, enduring some sort of purgatorial dead-end. The authorities and the wider world are complicit in it, and the only form of resistance is an act of violence.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, A Touch Of Sin would be a nihilistic grind, like a two-hour roller coaster ride consisting only of horrid lurches and constant lows, but it just so happens that Ke is a genius and a master of his craft. The film isn’t an easy watch, but it’s brilliantly made and exquisitely put together. The scenery in the film, from mining ghost towns to sleek, shining high-class brothels, speaks to the viewer as much as any line of dialogue. Ke’s anger is palpable so the film has a constant energy throughout, even in its most subdued and subtle moments.
This is cinema of the most vital and visceral kind, the celluloid equivalent of a slap in the face. Once it has your attention, you will find it very difficult to forget what have you seen, or the thoughts and feelings you have been left with.
Follow James Gates on Twitter via @jamespetergates
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