Judge Gordon Sullivan prefers a dash of salt.
Driven to violent ends.
One of the reasons that America was such a prosperous place in the post-World War II era was that it took a long time for the engine of American prosperity to spin up. What we've witnessed more often since World War II is countries switching from more controlled (usually totalitarian) economies to more capitalistic modes of production and consumption. In those cases, we often see immediate prosperity, but only for some, and the income gap accelerates along with growth. This leaves people behind, and it's precisely that situation that forms the background of A Touch of Sin, a Chinese film that tackles what happens when four different people reach the end of their respective ropes in contemporary China. The violence that results is shocking and inevitable, and the fact that it's all based on true stories gives the film an extra kick. Throw in a well-presented Blu-ray, and international cinema fans will be pleased to pick this one up.
Facts of the Case
A Touch of Sin concerns four different characters in contemporary China. We have a miner, a migrant worker, a secretary, and a factory who all encounter difficulties with the choices they've been forced to make under China's recent economic growth. Unsurprisingly, the pressure builds up until violence erupts.
Grand ironies often create tension, and out of tension comes violence. That seems to be one of the themes of A Touch of Sin. On the one hand, China is a tightly controlled state that exists in a world of ideological purity. On the other, its factories and people spend an inordinate amount of time producing goods for America, its ideological opposite. This puts China in a weird, quasi-capitalistic position, and the tension between the desire for state control and the ability to meet the needs of the open market has led to widespread wealth, but also widespread dissatisfaction as numerous groups find themselves lost in the shuffle between these opposite impulses.
Which makes A Touch of Sin sounds like a bad economics lecture, which it emphatically isn't. What director Jia Zhangke has done, instead, is ground his mixed feelings about contemporary China into four compelling stories around ordinary people. They are recognizable figures—a miner, a migrant worker, a receptionist, and a factory worker—and their familiarity means that they resonate across the borders of nation. Though America's economic situation is different from Chinas, I suspect a lot of viewers can identify, or at least sympathize, with the plight of these workers.
More importantly, perhaps, is that Zhangke treats the film like a film first and foremost. He's not at all afraid to borrow the tropes and imagery of other genres his audience maybe familiar with. We see the tropes of the martial arts film, as different characters accessorize with weapons and become magically more proficient. He's also not afraid to show the consequences of violence on his characters, including the sometimes-gory. It's a beautiful commentary on violence as a solution, and Zhangke doesn't shy away from giving sex a similar treatment. Here, the sex becomes less personal the more money is involved.
In some ways it's hard to sell the film, as describing A Touch of Sin makes it sound much more political and didactic than it actually is. Rather than rubbing our faces in the troubles he wishes to highlight, Zhangke tells his four stories and lets us draw our own conclusion. Whereas most of these kind of loosely connected narratives want to make a point about how even our tiniest interactions have huge consequences. In contrast, A Touch of Sin seems to want to show that in fact we all face similar choices, even if our lives aren't that strongly connected. Zhangke lets his arguments build slowly, minute-by-minute, rather than spending the whole film underlining them for us with grand speeches.
The film's presentation is also excellent. The film was shot digitally, so this 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is pristine from start to finish. Detail in static shots is impressive, while motion can get a little soft (likely due to the digital capture and not this transfer). Colors are appropriately saturated, especially reds and blues. Black levels are consistent and deep, especially for interiors. There are no significant compression or authoring problems to speak of. The film's DTS-HD 5.1 track is similarly impressive. The dialogue is always clean and clear from the front, and the track really shine when it features the depth and dynamic range of the score by Giong Lim. It's not always the most immersive track with lots of directional effects, but for keeping the film intelligible and affecting, it's near-perfect. The only bonus feature is a theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Those looking for a lighter tale, or one that tells a single, cohesive narrative might be disappointed by the interlocking stories of A Touch of Sin. Those with weak stomachs or who object to violence will also want to steer clear. Even those who can grapple with the material might be turned off by the film's length. It's understandable that a Chinese-language film that wasn't a huge blockbuster in America wouldn't get an extras-laden release, but given that the film made it to Cannes I would expect some kind of material beyond the trailers included here. Even a documentary about China's recent economic growth would be appreciated, or some material on the real-life stories that inspired the film.
Violence is sadly an all-too-common response to precarious economic situations, and A Touch of Sin confronts that problem in a way more direct than most features. Most viewers might balk at a two-hour film about Chinese troubles, but Zhangke does an excellent job delivering a story we can all relate to. Though fans of the film might wish for different kinds of extras that would really connect the film to wider Chinese (or global) issues, A Touch of Sin (Blu-ray) gives us a solid presentation that's worth a rental for fans of international cinema.
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