Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dismayed filmmaker reveals ugliness as China transforms

  • Print

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.

Movie review

A Touch of Sin

  • Directed by Jia Zhangke
  • Cinematheque
  • 14A
  • 129 minutes
  • 3 stars out of 5

Other voices

Epic and intimate, A Touch of Sin finally feels as big and complex, as contradictory and sad as, well, China.

-- James Adams, Globe and Mail

Jia Zhangke's brilliantly observed A Touch of Sin paints a bleak and violent picture of a contemporary China in which corruption is endemic.

-- Geoffrey Macnab, The Independent

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 30, 2014 D7

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Total Body Tune-Up: Farmer's Carry

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • An American White Pelican takes flight from the banks of the Red River in Lockport, MB. A group of pelicans is referred to as a ‘pod’ and the American White Pelican is the only pelican species to have a horn on its bill. May 16, 2012. SARAH O. SWENSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local- (Standup Photo). Watcher in the woods. A young deer peers from the forest while eating leaves by Cricket Drive in Assiniboine Park. A group of eight deer were seen in the park. 060508.

View More Gallery Photos


What do you think of the government's announcement that there will be no balanced provincial budget until 2018?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google