Review: 'A Touch of Sin'

This review was originally published on September 19, 2013 as part of's coverage of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

The cinema is well-equipped to respond to corruption and oppression, whether its powers are channelled into disconsolate sighs of resignation—as in Jafar Panahi’s forlorn act of protest “Closed Curtain”, another of this year’s TIFF highlights—or marshaled toward something more fierce, like Jia Zhangke’s impassioned, state-directed philippic “A Touch of Sin”. There is something uniquely satisfying about the strain of anger Jia taps into here, something perhaps about its scope and intensity that makes it almost galvanizing. The feeling is infectious. And because it is articulated by Jia, a filmmaker of otherwise peerless rigor and patience, what might come off in lesser hands as a bit histrionic instead seems somehow precisely calibrated and controlled, the vitriol justified by circumstance. Following a more than fifteen year career founded on precision and restraint, an eruption of feeling is warranted.

Less expected, though no less successful, is Jia’s rejection of the social realist and documentary traditions within which he has long established himself as among the world’s major contemporary figures. The apparent contradictions in Jia’s style—between documentary practice and narrative fiction, naturalism and fantasy, authenticity and artifice—have nevertheless produced a body of work as distinctive as it is strangely unified, the differences between films like “Still Life” and “24 City” less pronounced than their similarities. When critics describe “A Touch of Sin” as a departure for Jia, as they did often after its world premiere at the Cannes film festival last May, what they mean is that, for the first time, Jia has abandoned the singular and ever-evolving filmmaking mode for which he remains best known to adopt an approach that is far more recognizable. In other words, “A Touch of Sin” is a genre film. It has its roots in the wuxia, as Jia has said in interviews, but to Western eyes it is also quite simply an action epic, a blockbuster spectacle of stylized gunplay and the violence of revenge. To that end praise comes easily: “A Touch of Sin” is by far the best action film of the year.

It is also, of course, much more than that—its ideological dimension is more substantive than anything Hollywood could ever hope to achieve—but the superficial gratification it offers is itself worth celebrating. It has become something of a trend, of late, for esteemed arthouse filmmakers to go slumming with conspicuously (and sometimes dubiously) accessibly genre fare, be it Kelly Reichardt’s heist-picture deconstruction in “Night Moves”, Wong Kar-wai’s foray into kung-fu watercolors with “The Grandmaster”, or even Xavier Dolan’s take on erotic thriller with his queer-inflected “Tom at the Farm”. The danger here is always one of tacit elitism: too much self-consciousness in the approach reeks of superiority, as if the pleasures of the genre were beneath the filmmaker’s higher aspirations. Part of what’s so invigorating about “A Touch of Sin” is its refusal to betray the depth of its intellectual ambition, deferring when needed to generic convention and relishing the entertainment which follows. Though Jia is clearly a formidable thinker, he never operates from a perceived remove, never regarding the style or form of the material as if it were somehow cheap or frivolous. He meets the action movie on its level and thus delivers an exceptional one.

This much is clear from the five minute pre-credit sequence which opens the film, a tremendous display of genre movie virtuosity. We come upon an overturned tomato truck, just crashed and with its load spilled across an open highway, as Dahai (Jia regular Jiang Wu) observes the scene idly from his nearby motorbike, tossing one of the errant tomatoes in the air with the rhythm of a metronome. Meanwhile, Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) is stopped on a motorbike of his own by a trio of teens a little further down the road, and when they threaten to rob him at knifepoint he stone-facedly unloads a hidden pistol into the backs of all three. Riding away, Zhou and Dahai briefly cross paths, the latter stopping his tomato toss to finally take a bite—at which point, the tomato an inch from his lips, an explosion erupts just behind him. Cut to titles. Sit in awe.

In terms of conception and orchestration, this sequence rivals any blockbuster setpiece in recent memory, the whole thing shot and edited with a masterful command of form. Jia could do little more than demonstrate his formal prowess and the results would doubtless astonish. But this sequence also sets an important thematic precedent, one that expands and enriches its purely theatrical qualities: shorn of motivation (at least temporarily), the brief flurry of action which kicks off “A Touch of Sin” is reduced to mere impulse, the indulgence of an urge toward bloodshed unmitigated by reason or morality. Violence, made morally illegible, becomes codified as spectacle, action without context. It becomes a visceral, almost instinctive response. And throughout the four discrete stories which constitute “A Touch of Sin”, violence will be indulged in at precisely the point it can no longer be suppressed by a moral imperative. Power, be it state-sanctioned or otherwise, obliterates reason—it proposes violence as the only obvious response. This is a film in which ordinary people are pushed against the wall without recourse to alleviate the pressure, and failing any viable alternative they revert to the most basic human impulse: fight to survive.

The film’s first segment follows Dahai as he endeavors to call out local government corruption in his small hometown, a fight that proves not only futile (nobody listens or cares) but dangerous (government cronies hand him a beating when he embarrasses a politian publicly). Dahai, seeing no other way around it, takes up arms and takes his fight to the street, mowing down city officials and the residents he perceives as collaborators. The violence in these scenes is harder to reconcile. The almost anarchic sensibility he adopts in his quest for social justice may be extreme, but the cause is just and the alternatives are nonexistent. What else is a man to do? His final act of violence seems in a way one of unifying redemption, a gesture of good faith extended to the audience: coming upon a farmer whipping his horse brutally in the road, Dahai shoots the master and frees the slave. Jia tracks the animal as it makes its trek toward freedom, cart still pitifully attached, and the question becomes one of means and ends. In all four stories Jia finds the breaking point of the defeated and inherently sympathetic, finding their will to resist and aligning our sympathies with their violent retreats. This isn’t about moralizing or goading the audience to similar action (and in fact a last-minute coda recasts much of this violence which precedes it in a different light). If it’s instructive at all, it arrives a point more ambiguous than that, more contemplative and thoughtful. Jia, working in his most forceful register yet, cannot help but remain meditative. Even action is unsure.

SCORE: 9.0 / 10