Dir. Jia Zhangke
Koch Lorber Films
4/5 stars

In an absurd world, art does not have to look very far to find its subject matter. When that world is post-socialist China, you can be sure there will be some rather messed up material. “A Touch of Sin” is the latest, and perhaps greatest, of Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s cinematic oeuvre. It is based directly on four true stories, capturing them in all their abrupt violence and senseless brutality.

“A Touch of Sin” includes nearly every hot button social issue relevant in China today, sometimes to the detriment of the film: could Jia have crammed any more social angst into the movie’s 125 minutes? Covered are: factory worker suicides, prostitution, high-speed train accidents, China’s petitioning and redress system, bureaucratic corruption...the list goes on.

Regardless of its content, “A Touch of Sin” is one good-looking film. Jia switched to digital filmmaking in 2001, and the aesthetic effect is breathtaking. Sometimes the images are too obviously edited, the light a little too golden to be believable. Most other times, however, Jia works with muted, earthy colors to convey a visual tone of apathy and stagnancy. The protagonists often look lonely and small, framed in long shots of vast mountain ranges and urban sprawl. The only pop of color comes with the ever-present apples, whether lusciously spilled out on the side of a highway or sitting quietly on a kitchen tabletop.

Despite the sweeping cinematography of the piece, the film is really about its human protagonists. Jia treats every shot as if it could be a movie poster, and the shots tend to be highly symmetrical compositions of people and features of the landscape around them. Dialogue and sounds are muted and sparse, yet in the silence of the film, they are simultaneously richly amplified so that each sibilant hiss and plastic crackle is incredibly aurally satisfying. Taken together, the effect is one of incredible intimacy with each of the four protagonists.

But in individualizing his protagonists, Jia elevates them to the status of heroes. The grim reality of the everyday is re-rendered as the stuff of myth; here his digital filmmaking gives this fictionalized, yet terrifyingly real, world both a documentary-like immediacy and hyperreal detail. “A Touch of Sin” draws both its title and stylized violence from earlier martial arts wuxia films, in which brutality can be morally justified. The viewer may find themselves oddly more sympathetic toward the killers rather than the killed. One of the film’s characters describes his first killing with the terse phrase, "I'm hunting animals."

Besides wuxia influences, other cultural references are apparent. More than once, Jia incorporates the music and costumes of traditional Chinese opera into the movie. In one scene, Dahai systematically discharges his own crude, bloody form of justice as a traveling band of opera singers simultaneously perform the story of an old hero taking his sword up to the mountain. Whether or not Dahai can be considered a modern-day equivalent of folk heroes in times gone by is up to the audience to decide. These parallels between the old and the new, the quotidian and the elevated and the connectivity afforded by globalization frame the movie.

The allusions to the biblical conception of sin are obvious, from the title alone; snakes and apples are visual tropes throughout the movie. What is the sin? Is it the corruption that drives some to murder, or is it the murder itself? And who are the real sinners? At the heart of the film, these questions are left deliberately unanswered, though we get a sense of on which side Jia wants us to fall.