Published Sep 12, 2013Comparable to Babel, without the oppressive dourness, or Paul Haggis's Crash, if it was actually worthy of the praise lavished upon it, A Touch of Sin expertly tells an interconnected story, the parts of which never directly come into contact. These episodic vignettes, staging the fall of a disparate cast of sinners, are jostled by cause-and-effect ripples, but that's the extent of their involvement — each piece is meant to serve as a thematic companion to the others, not direct sequential links in the same narrative chain.
A commonality between the short stories: each protagonist is pushed over the edge by the unforgiving corruption and violence polluting life in working class districts of China. Blood and moral ambiguity are the realities of every day. Exhibiting an impressive aptitude for tastefully conveying his intent via careful manipulation of cinematic language, Zhangke gives each story its own flavour without compromising the overall visual unity of the film.
Featuring a former coal miner who launches a formal complaint against city officials for embezzling money earmarked for the subsequently laid off workers, the first chapter is so good that it's almost a shame it's not a continuing piece of the story. Jiang Wu is wonderfully engaging, emoting with passion, indignation and festering pain as he's treated to public ridicule and brutal beatdowns for trying to bring justice to his community. Zhangkie finds beauty and gallows humour in this frustrated man's cathartic meltdown, as he does, to varying degrees, the other satellite stories orbiting this depiction of a country overflowing with leveraged transgressions.
Excellent stedicam work and lengthy tracking shots contribute to a sense of intimacy without sacrificing clarity, while also making for smooth transitions to the poetic scenes of violence spicing up the measured proceedings. The film's musical accompaniment shifts from story to story, along with deliberate alternations to the vivid colour schemes, confirming the director's meticulous attention to detail.
Certain segments are more directly compelling than others — bits involving a family man that can't resist the lure of murder and a mistress giving an ultimatum feel less developed than the more emotionally complex and cinematically wowing chapters surrounding them. However, each contributes to the big picture all the same.
There is so much going on, and so many characters that only have limited time to tell their story, in A Touch of Sin that it requires more than one viewing to fully digest how it works as a whole. Regardless, it's an accomplished film with moments of violent beauty so dazzling they will be tattooed to the inside of your mind's eyelid.
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