Chinese Democracy – ★★★★½
Jia Zhangke’s latest work compiles four short stories together into one two hour feature which has been hailed as somewhat of a “state of the nation” call to modern China.
A Touch of Sin debuted a year ago at Cannes where Zhangke won an award for Best Screenplay. The film also competed for and lost out on the Palme d’Or but the acknowledgement for the screenwriting is very fitting considering the effort that was made in moulding a film out of snippets of stories from the Chinese social media site Weibo.
In the first and probably most memorable of the shorts we meet Dahai (Jiang Wu – that’s him on his motorbike in the May “What’s Worth Watching” image), a disgruntled resident in a small Chinese village who gets more and more frustrated with local politics that he decides to take things into his own hands. Next up a seemingly wreck-less contract killer with major psychological problems, played by Baoqiang Wang. The third story is about a sauna receptionist (Tao Zhao, real-life wife of the director) who loses her dignity when assaulted by a client so decides to settle a score. Finally story number four is about a young factory worker (Lanshan Luo) who grows tired as he is expected to work more and more for less and less pay. There are only minor token character cross-overs in play between the shorts with the focus instead on the common themes which unite them.
The film avoids the big recognisable skyscapes of Beijing and Shanghai and instead opts for a more rural and regional settings, this opens up audiences to a side of Chinese life that they may not have known still exists.
There’s a growing sense of discontent with the nation’s focus on profits and economic output, rather than health and wellbeing. While the world now thinks of China as a developed super-power, the country as presented here still feels like it is in the throes of its own industrial revolution.
A Touch of Sin is beautifully shot in anamorphic widescreen by cinematographer Yu Lik-wai on digital Arri Alexa cameras. You will struggle to find a more attractive film in cinemas this spring. The fact that Zhangke’s own country of China have yet to release the film due to concerns over the violence, instead driving people toward illegal DVD bootlegs of it means they’re unfortunately not seeing it in the best quality possible.
The film’s marketing contains frequent mentions of Tarantino and violence and action but this isn’t really doing it justice. A Touch of Sin doesn’t feel like a fantasy or genre film but instead one of a relatable, modern society where people are tipped over the edge and forced into their own controlled – but explosive – acts of violence.