When director Jia Zhang-ke introduced this film, he mentioned that before he started to embark on “A Touch Of Sin”, he was actually in the middle of making another film. However due to the dramatic increase of very violent incidents occurring in China of late, he felt he had to shelve the other film and immediately make what became “A Touch Of Sin”. Such was his outrage that he wanted to highlight and make a statement about violence in China today and chose to do so by taking four true stories ripped from recent headlines. Each story takes place in a different province of China which Jia Zhang-ke said was a deliberate act to give a complete view of the entire nation.
The first story is about a man living in a mining town who is disgusted by the fact that the town’s head politician (and his former classmate) has become wealthy off the back of the place he is meant to be helping while those living in the area still find themselves struggling to make ends meet. When he tries to protest these points in a peaceful albeit public manner, he is set upon and badly beaten with a shovel. This is the final straw for the man, who is finally sick of being looked down upon, and decides to do something about it via the use of a shotgun. The next story is about a country man returning to his hometown to help lay to rest his dead mother. After reuniting with his wife and child, it soon becomes apparent that the man cares about very little except, disturbingly, the gun he has in his possession and the feeling he gets when he fires it. The third story is about a young woman who after suffering the wrath from the wife of the man she was having an affair with, is soon again abused by a customer who mistakes her for a prostitute at the massage parlour she works at. This new abuse unleashes all of this woman’s pent up anger and aggression that she has been bottling up for so long, which ends in extreme bloodshed. The fourth and final story is about a factory worker who after being blamed for a minor injury to another worker on the job (and thus being expected to give this man his wages for as long as he is off work for), decides to flee instead and finds work as a waiter at an upscale brothel. There he meets and falls in love with one of the sex workers there but finding it too hard to deal with the kind of work she performs, the guy decides again to flee his life, this time running right into the path of his past which is about to catch up with him.
“A Touch Of Sin” is an incredibly frustrating film to watch, however ironically, it is also a very easy film to watch. The film looks great with some truly beautiful cinematography (for the most part; there were some scenes that looked far too digital for my liking) showing off the different landscapes of China, and it is well acted too, but at the end of the day the film has nothing to say. It just feels like a very hollow exercise, which surprised me no end. In Jia Zhang-ke’s introduction, he mentioned his anger in regards to the violence in China today and I expected this anger to permeate through the film in its entirety, but I did not feel it once; it just did not exist. Jia Zhang-ke seems happy enough to just re-create these real life events as they happened, rather than adding any subtext or political standing to them, which ultimately makes the whole thing a pointless exercise.
Another problem that “A Touch Of Sin” faces is the fact that it is so repetitive. While it is true, each of the four stories are different, all of them are set up in the exact same manner, that by the end of the first story we have worked out the formula for the rest of the film, which ultimately makes “A Touch Of Sin” quite dull because we know what is coming. In each story we are introduced to a character who appears normal and each time something happens in their lives triggering these people into ticking time-bombs and we then sit, waiting for this character to finally explode into violence.
In regards to the stories themselves, I found only the first and third ones to be engaging enough that I cared about what was happening. The second story with the migrant worker and his gun is a bit of a dud because the main character is so unlikable that you just do not care, where as the final story starts strong only to fizzle at the end.
Being a film from mainland China I was not expecting the levels of violence that is found in “A Touch Of Sin”. This is a seriously gory film particularly in the initial segment when we are witness time and again to the brutal power behind a shotgun and what damage it can cause to the human body. The third section of the film also has a lot of bloody violence in it as well which I think a lot of people would find very confronting.
Overall, while “A Touch Of Sin” is a beautifully shot and acted film, it is ultimately a hollow experience. The film has nothing to say and seems only to exist in an attempt to shock people by its own levels of violence. Similar to my recent opinion of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives”, a film can be as stylish and beautiful as you want, but if you have got nothing to say, it will not engage the audience and thus become pointless or worse, a wasted opportunity. Sadly, I feel this is the case with “A Touch Of Sin”.