ALTHOUGH no one knows if former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping did say "To get rich is glorious," that sentiment has certainly taken hold in China. But what happens to a society when an unregulated drive for personal wealth upends traditional norms? What happens to the less fortunate when people who have money come to believe that nothing else matters?
A Touch of Sin, the powerful if uneven new film by highly regarded Chinese director Jia Zhangke, is a corrosive depiction of the New China, an everything-for-sale society still figuring out how to cope with the dehumanizing effects of unbridled capitalism.
Jia, whose 2006 Still Life won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, has dealt with the problems of Chinese society in the past, but in a more allusive, elliptical way. Now his concern about the nakedness of the corruption and an increasing trend of individuals resorting to violence out of desperation has led him to modify his style in ways that are both awkward and effective.
Written by the director (who received the best-screenplay award at Cannes in 2013), A Touch of Sin is an omnibus film of four separate but subtly linked stories that take place in different corners of the country, based on real events that Jia, in a director's note, says "are well-known to people throughout China."
The other element that unites these tales is their common theme of characters being driven to the limit of their endurance and taking the moral law into their own hands. In a world where individuals do not foresee a future for themselves, violence may seem like the only option left.
In telling these stories, Jia has referenced traditional forms of Chinese storytelling. He says he considers Touch of Sin to be a wuxia, or martial-arts film, about contemporary China (the English title references King Hu's classic A Touch of Zen), and scenes from street performances of Chinese operas appear at crucial moments.
The first story Touch of Sin tells takes place in a small town in a coal mining area in Shanxi province, in China's north, where former miner Dahai (Jiang Wu) makes his home.
A natural provocateur and troublemaker, Dahai is upset about a genuine outrage: The state-owned coal mine, which supposedly belonged to all local citizens, has been sold to a wealthy individual who is keeping the profits for himself and not paying promised dividends.
The second and most nihilistic story follows motorcycle-riding migrant worker Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), who returns home to Chongqing in southwest China for the end-of-the-year holidays. His passion for shooting guns reflects the nature of a might-makes-right society.
Following this comes Touch of Sin's most evocative episode, starring Zhao Tao (who is also the director's wife). She plays Xiao Yu, a woman from central China who works as a receptionist in a sauna. She is having a hard time in general when an obdurate customer demands she give him a more intimate massage.
"I have money," the man insists, assaulting her repeatedly with a thick wad of bills. "I'll smother you in money." The results are not pretty.
The final episode, about a rootless young man (Luo Lanshan) in Guangdong province in the south who can't seem to find his footing in this cold new world, is most notable for its depiction of a boggling high-end brothel called "The Golden Age" where prostitutes dress up in a variety of uniforms, including train conductors and soldiers, for the delectation of their wealthy customers.
-- Los Angeles Times