Zhangke is considered one of the great Chinese auteurs, but this is the first of his films that I’ve seen. It’s an ungainly affair, four mostly unconnected stories, all based on true events, about people in different Chinese provinces who are driven by isolation and injustice to commit acts of violence. The movie is certainly trying to say some intriguing things about the way in which modern Chinese society is fractured and isolated; every one of the four main characters here live away from their families because of circumstances beyond their control. And the film is one of a number I’ve seen in the past few months that seem to be positing that barely repressed rage is reaching cancerous levels in modern society and it’s perhaps most troubling that these films about modern rage have come from numerous countries. One I just recently saw was the Spanish language Wild Tales, another omnibus about rage and violence, though A Touch of Sin isn’t as great as Wild Tales. The problem here is the variableness. One story, about a cold-eyed drifter, never seems to reach its potential; another, about a woman’s affair with a married man, is riveting from start to finish and features a gripping performance from Tao Zhao, a frequent Zhangke collaborator. The film makes the mistake of ending with the story that is by far the weakest, the story of a young Chinese worker struggling to make ends meet; it’s a story that isn’t so much ambiguous as just unfinished and ends the film on a very dissatisfying note. Still, there’s certainly much of interest; the violence is rendered really shockingly and graphically (the one strength in the final story is the last shot, which captures an act of violence so realistically that I gasped aloud), but also coolly, without emotion, which deepens the disturbing nature of the film. Zhangke doesn’t draw attention to the violence or seek to make it seem special in anyway; it’s as if a camera is simply running and it simply captures a man coolly emptying a shotgun into another man’s chest. It’s just an event, like any other. It’s a powerful stylistic choice. And it has the strength of omnibus films in that you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next, which is why I’ve attempted to be very vague and recommend that if you do watch this film that you watch it without researching any plot material. It’s a film that isn’t the masterpiece most critics are saying it is, but it’s certainly a good film and one worth watching. Recommended. 3 stars.
tl;dr – omnibus film tells true stories of rage & violence in modern day China; inconsistent, but often striking and disturbing. 3 stars.