Four interconnected tales of economic desperation, set in contemporary China, A Touch of Sin paints a bleak, if occasionally beautiful, picture. Written and directed by Jia Zhangke (Ash Is Purest White), the movie centers on characters who have been pushed past their breaking points and who lash out in violence—against others and themselves.
We first meet Dahai (Jiang Wu), a rabble-rouser in a remote coal-mining village who is no longer willing to stay quiet about the greed and corruption that has allowed a few men at the top to enrich themselves. Wu gives a spirited performance—full of hard stares and skeptical eye rolls—and at first you think Dahai might be brazen enough to make a difference. But when Dahai accosts the mine’s owner on the airstrip where he has just landed his private plane, it’s as if the miner is screaming into the wind. The owner dismisses him, and moments later a bodyguard takes a shovel to his head.
Similarly, each of the other three people we meet—an itinerant worker (Wang Baoqianga) who must leave his wife and child behind to scrounge up cash in increasingly sketchy ways; a sauna employee (Zhao Tao) surrounded by men who believe anything can be bought; and a young worker (Luo Lanshan) who bounces from job to job as his debt continues to compound—experience violence, or at least the threat of it, before enacting violence themselves. Jia seems to be suggesting that this is a vicious cycle, that a touch of sin is all humanity needs to descend into a downward spiral.
As a director, Jia constructs sparsely edited scenes built upon long, single takes—nothing showy, just patient, uninterrupted attention given to the characters in a way that feels empathetic and mournful. The intimate scenes are juxtaposed with stunning landscape compositions that emphasize China’s massive transportation systems: roads, railways, boats, and bridges, most in a state of construction or repair. These are all means of connection—progress—but they feel meaningless in their massive scale. At one point, an older woman selling vegetables by an airport under construction notes that once the project is done, all the workers will leave. What’s the point of such growth, one wonders, if an entire class of people are forgotten—or even crushed—in the process?