DVD Review: Jia Zhangke's 'A Touch of Sin', Starring Zhao Tao and Jiang Wu

Violence is always an interesting topic of conversation. It has the ability to shatter lives, save them in certain circumstances, and is a heavy subject in social commentary. Should guns be banned? Do the ends justify the means? Why are some people who kill regarded as heroes and others as criminals? These are questions that have been asked in regards to this exceedingly talked about subject matter. Violence itself is heavily prevalent in our popular culture, gun-toting and bloodshed appearing in most of today's movies and video games, but director Jia Zhangke approaches the topic from a different perspective: from that of those who are driven to it, who have never committed the act before in his thought-provoking film A Touch of Sin

The movie follows four different characters, all from different provinces in China. Though
they're all independent of each other and don't know who the other is, they all have something in common. They are the everyday people. A miner, a factory worker, receptionist, a migrant. They're all what society calls "lower class" citizens. They're workers, all of which struggle to survive, the proverbial underdogs... well, some of them are. 

The miner, angry at the corruption happening in his village by the CEO of the coal mining company, and even more angry that no one has the guts to do anything about it, sets out on his own rage and partially jealous-fueled (he and the CEO used to be classmates) vendetta. A man who travels for work, finds that owning a gun comes in very useful when he needs to get money for his family, shooting down people he robs and getting their cash. His wife doesn't agree with it and this causes tension, but it's been useful to him and he won't stop. 

A receptionist, who's having an affair with a married man, is harassed by his wife when she finds out and comes to wage hateful words at the sauna where she works. She is finally pushed to the act of violence when she's mistaken for a prostitute and is slapped around by a man who refuses to take no for an answer, thinking that a lot of money will buy anyone. And finally, a factory worker runs away from his job after he's forced to give his wages to a coworker who is injured on the job. He ends up moving from job to job and finding out that everything feels like a desolate situation before committing his own act of violence. 

One of the strengths of the film comes from Jia Zhangke's ability to tell four stories in one. Some of the characters, however, aren't sympathetic, while the others are. The film is beautifully shot, its lack of music making it feel a bit more dreary and Zhangke's cut to his actors' expression after they've committed such awful acts gives the film a sense of realism in the face of their horrific acts. The film explores contemporary China in a rising economy, but doesn't pretend that everything's alright or glamorous just because it's gaining power. The distinct split between the rich and poor are very much existent, and Zhangke lays it out for us beautifully. 

This leads us to the parts of the film that are a little more shaky and underwhelming: the characters themselves. For at least two of them (the miner and the receptionist), their motivations and eventual acts are laid out for us in a way we can understand. The other two, the least compelling being the story of the migrant worker, are not up to par. 

While we see what they're going through, their paths aren't quite as clear. Their final acts are something that just seem to happen very quickly and we aren't connected with them enough to thoroughly understand why. This is one of the reasons the film doesn't flow as smoothly, another being the overall lack of connection between the four characters. The situations are too isolated and it might have helped if Zhangke chose to somehow tie them together. 

A Touch of Sin, regardless of its faults, is still a thought-provoking film. Based on true events, Zhangke paints the struggles of his characters in modern China in a way that's almost reflective. It makes you pause and wonder why four seemingly ordinary people, struggling to live their lives without purposefully evoking trouble would commit such offensive acts. Zhangke takes care to answer these questions, even if his overall story comes off a bit disjointed in its character connectivity. An introspective film that tackles an important subject matter.