Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Cannes Review of A Touch of Sin

A harrowing Chinese film offers a depressing diagnosis of the nation’s malaises.

Fri, May 17, 2013, 17:03




Directed by Jia Zhangke

Starring Baoqiang Wang, Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao

In competition, 133 min

Only a very deluded fellow would argue that the official competition has, to date, offered an optimistic take on society. The latest film from Jia Zhangke, however, really excels in the field of applied misery. Previously best known for the relatively restrained Still Life, Jia takes aim at consumerism and corruption in a film that incorporates stories from different regions of China and different sections of society. A mineworker teeters into psychotic mayhem after learning that this boss has somehow syphoned off enough money to afford a private jet and a delicious, luxury motorcar. A woman working in a massage parlour is forced to defend herself from the unwelcome advances of two well-heeled thugs. And so forth.

The opening sequence sums up the film’s nihilistic approach very nicely. A man on a moped is stopped by three muggers armed with hatchets. He produces a revolver and coolly kills them all. The moral — if that is the word — could not be clearer: society is governed by those with the biggest, most powerful weapons.

The picture is a very strange blend of deadened arthouse anti-drama and genre-friendly hyper violence. When the woman in the sauna is propelled into action, she responds in the fashion of a hero from a bold martial arts picture. There is little doubt that Jia is repelled by violence. Nonetheless, the outbreaks of bloody chaos are filmed with an uncomfortable enthusiasm that seems calculated to set the heart racing. Michael Haneke would greatly appreciate that quandary.

The director defines no grand design or no pointers as to any possible solutions. The film is mainly concerned with diagnosing the disease rather than offering any cures. Shot in grey shades, featuring some heightened performances, it remains, however, horribly engaging from its grim beginning to its utterly hopeless ending.

A sobering experience.