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May 17, 2013

A Touch of Sin (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 8:06 pm

A Touch of Sin
17 May, 2013
By Fionnuala Halligan

Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch Of Sin is clearly fuelled by an anger that mirrors the tone of his very first underground film, Xiao Wu. This time, however, Jia is not shooting under the radar, and he brokes no misunderstanding. A Touch Of Sin conveys a more overt contempt for China’s moral bankruptcy - root and branch - that should pose problems for the director on a personal level.

This violent denunciation of the world’s economic engine has also provoked a change of style for the Shanxi-born director, previously the darling of the more rarified end of the digital arthouse. Its seductive aesthetic – while preserving some of the director’s cherished naturalism – is a riposte to the elaborate frames of Jia’s Fifth Generation predecessors. Relating four true-life stories from the pages of Chinese newspapers, A Touch Of SIn is also extremely violent. It is, in essence, a vision of the underbelly of today’s China which, fuelled by headlines, may attract much wider audiences for Jia overseas, even as it causes outrage at home.

Using professional actors including Jiang Wu and Wang Baoqiang, A Touch Of Sin is a larger, much more ambitious production than Jia has previously attempted (his last film at Cannes was 24 City in 2008, while Still Life won the Golden Lion in 2006. Many still remember him best however for The World, set in a Beijing amusement park). His films have always tracked his country’s rapid development, always with a critical eye. But this, in particular, is a bristling film; with anger, colours, affluence, landscapes which jut into the frame, both natural and man-made.

It’s also a road movie in the tradition of the wuxia genre, a homage paid in the title (to King Hu’s A Touch Of Zen). Migrants jostle from province to province. Private planes, high-speed trains, fancy Western cars and primitive motorbikes share the roads with the Chinese zodiac symbols of a tiger, oxen, a horse, a snake (directed by Tsui Hark, according to the credits), reminding us that the struggle is an enduring – if not eternal - one. Chinese opera singers cry: “Do you understand your sin?”

Jia relates four stories in the film, which track southwards through China, starting in the agricultural province of Shanxi and ultimately reaching Dongguan, a town in Guangong province. In Shanxi, a statue of Mao looks over the town square in where Dahai (Jiang Wu) bridles at the death of collectivism and the riches of the town’s mayor who has profited by the sale of the coalmine. Down south, in Guangdong, where prostitutes dance in skimpy PLA uniforms and thigh-high boots to patriotic songs, such ideas might even seem quaint.

Jia sees a China plagued by questions that individuals can only answer with violence. These also include a violent migrant worker with a gun who visits home over Chinese New Year, a receptionist at a sauna who is assaulted by a rich client; and a young factory worker moving from job to job in Guangdong. In the film’s press notes, Jia says all these stories are well-known at home in China. By adding them together, he assembles a force with which he repeatedly assails the viewer.

Jia works again with his regular Hong Kong cinematographer Yu Lick-wai who rises to the challenge of the director’s ambition from the very first frames – of vibrant green palm fronts, an over-turned truck filled with tomatoes, and a mysterious explosion. The colours pop and the artifice works side by side with the naturalism. Even as the repetitive messages of violence and dislocation come to lose some of their effect by the final frames, Jia’s outrage is the diving force that he musters to deliver a significant change in direction.

Production companies: XStream Pictures, Office Kitano, Shanghai Film Group Corporation.

International sales: MK2,

Producer: Shozo Ichiyama

Executive producer: Jia Zhang-ke

Cinematography Yu Lik-wai

Music: Lim Giong

Main cast: Zhao Tao, Jiang Wi, Wang Baoqiang, Luo Lanshan

A Touch of Sin (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 1:17 pm

A Touch of Sin

MAY 16, 2013
Justin Chang

Not exactly your grandmother’s Jia Zhangke movie, “A Touch of Sin” marks an arresting but unpersuasive change of pace for a filmmaker hitherto lauded for his placid, perceptive snapshots of contemporary China (“Still Life,” “The World”). Once again exploring the many varieties of social, political and economic oppression at home, Jia crams together four very uneven stories of four troubled individuals, all climaxing in horrific acts of violence that send the film swerving into Grand Guignol territory. Likely to court solid arthouse attention, plus some controversy despite its official Chinese sponsorship, this is unquestionably Jia’s most mainstream-friendly work, if also his most schematic and, blades aside, least penetrating; its ripped-from-the-headlines relevance is decidedly at odds with its giddy geysers of blood.

Many of the purist auteurists who have made the writer-director such a celebrated figure on the international stage may well reject his seventh feature on aesthetic grounds alone. For them, the real sin will be that Jia has abandoned the docu-fiction experimentation of 2008′s “24 City” in favor of a relatively robust narrative, replete with the sort of balls-to-the-wall brutality more typically encountered in the work of Quentin Tarantino or Takashi Miike.

Others may argue that Jia has merely rendered explicit the convulsive undercurrents present in his work all along, exploring the extreme consequences of local corruption and neglect, rampant greed, poor labor conditions and countless other social ills fueled by China’s economic miracle. Allowing content to dictate form, he has adopted a pulpy and accessible realist style in order to tackle some of his country’s most notorious recent tragedies on a broad, panoramic canvas. (Among the incidents either fictionalized or mentioned here are a deadly high-speed train accident in 2011 and the suicides of 18 Foxconn factory employees in 2010.)

In any event, there’s a certain pleasure to be had in seeing a revered auteur go off the disreputable deep end, and there’s no denying “A Touch of Sin” packs a visceral wallop — particular in the first and bloodiest of its four loosely connected yarns. On a dusty stretch of China’s northern Shanxi province (Jia’s birthplace), a disgruntled miner (Jiang Wu) goes around verbally abusing the corrupt village officials who have cost him his livelihood; not until he arms himself with a rifle are his threats and accusations taken seriously. A gun also figures into the film’s less involving second segment, set in the southwestern city of Chongqing; there, a dead-eyed migrant worker (Wang Baoqiang), who has returned home for his mother’s 70th birthday celebration, makes a singularly productive if lethal discovery.

The protagonists of the next two vignettes register as considerably more human and sympathetic. Most of the film’s acting opportunities go to Jia’s wife and regular muse, Zhao Tao, cast here as a sauna receptionist (based in the central Chinese province of Hubei) who makes the mistake of giving her married lover an ultimatum. If nothing else, the outcome of this melodrama puts a knife-wielding Zhao at the center of one of the film’s more indelibly blood-spattered images.

Nineteen-year-old Luo Lanshan, the sole non-pro actor among the four leads, gets the film’s limpest role as a mild-mannered kid who drifts from one soul-crushing job to another in the industrial city of Dongguan, well known for having China’s highest concentration of sex workers. This final tale does allow Jia to get in some wickedly satirical jabs — particularly in a few scenes at a high-end brothel peddling young women in sexy military uniforms — before attempting to tie the stories together in a sub-Kieslowskian narrative framework.

Rather than employing his customary long shots, the director keeps the camera in unsparing proximity to the often murderous action, rendered all the more potent by Yu Likwai’s crisp digital lensing and Matthieu Lac Lau and Lin Xudong’s sharp editing. Yet just as the horror of senseless real-life violence tends to frustrate and overwhelm any effort to understand it, so these onscreen bloodbaths wind up muddling the script’s attempts at narrative explanation; the characters’ fatal decisions seem by turns inscrutable, inevitable and arbitrary, making for neither effective psychology nor effective sociology.

As usual, Jia excels at finding the poetry in dislocation and decay; the strongest motif here is the sense of these itinerant workers continually and hopelessly on the move, often framed against crumbling ruins and construction zones as they wander in search of a reason to keep going. Densely populated though it must be, this is a China where everyone seems horribly alone.

The film is also rich in cinematic reference points, and not just because of the titular homage to King Hu’s 1971 wuxia classic, “A Touch of Zen”; attentive audiences will find a certain resonance in the casting of Jiang, who starred in Zhang Yimou’s banned mainland epic “To Live,” and Baoqiang, from Li Yang’s brilliant coal-mine thriller “Blind Shaft.” The allusions extend to Jia’s body of work as well: A traveling theater troupe evokes his 2000 epic “Platform,” while a Three Gorges Dam interlude can’t help but recall “Still Life.” Viewed in context, these images feel like hopeful reminders of the past, gestures at an accomplished oeuvre to which this restless talent cannot return quickly enough.

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 16, 2013. Running time: 133 MIN. Original title: “Tian zhu ding”
(China) An Xstream Pictures (Beijing), Office Kitano, Shanghai Film Group Corp. and MK2 presentation in association with Shanxi Film and Television Group, Bandai Visual, Bitters End. (International sales: MK2, Paris.) Produced by Shozo Ichiyama. Executive producers, Jia Zhangke, Masayuki Mori, Ren Zhonglun. Co-producers, Eva Lam, Qian Jianping, Gao Xiaojiang, Zhang Dong.
Directed, written by Jia Zhangke. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Yu Lik-wai; editors, Matthieu Lac Lau, Lin Xudong; music, Lim Giong; art director, Liu Weixin; sound designer, Zhang Yang; associate producers, Kazumi Kawashiro, Yuji Sadai, Liu Shiyu, Jia Bin.
Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan, Zhang Jiayi, Li Meng. (Mandarin dialogue, Shanxi, Sichuan dialects; Cantonese dialogue, Hunan dialect; English dialogue)

A Touch of Sin (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 3:41 am

A Touch of Sin
5/16/2013 by David Rooney

The Bottom Line
Impassioned admirers of maverick Chinese writer-director Jia Zhang-ke’s work may get on board, but new converts seem unlikely.

China returns to the Cannes competition with Jia Zhang-ke’s sobering view of festering discontent as the gap between the country’s rich and poor expands.

CANNES – The widening chasm of social inequality separating the moneyed powerbrokers from the struggling masses – not to mention the despair and violence bred by that disparity – is a subject of saddening universality. Exploring those thematic lines in A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding), Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke only occasionally strikes chords that resonate, despite having distinguished himself as one of the most perceptive chroniclers of his country’s transition into 21st century nationhood in films like Platform and The World.

The English-language title of his seventh narrative feature is a play on King Hu’s 1971 martial arts epic, A Touch of Zen. And while that seems more a homage than a significant structural inspiration, there are certainly genre elements here that are new to Jia’s work. But tonal inconsistency, lethargic pacing and a shortage of fresh insight dilute the storytelling efficacy of this quartet of loosely interconnected episodes involving ordinary people pushed over the edge.

As always, the visual compensations are considerable thanks to regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, whose eye for arresting detail is equally sharp whether trained on natural landscapes, assembly-line industrial communities, bleak mining towns or the crumbling remnants of China’s past.

While the distinctions among the four far-flung principal settings and their various dialects will mean little to audiences unversed in Chinese geography and linguistics, a strong sense does emerge of a rootless populace displaced by sweeping cultural change and economic necessity. When one character living paycheck-to-paycheck responds to the suggestion of trying his luck abroad by saying that the rest of the world is broke, and that’s why so many are descending on China, the sardonic edge to Jia’s observation will be lost on nobody.

The film opens with a punchy bout of bloodshed as three kids brandishing hatchets hold up passing motorcyclist Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) on a stretch of lonely road. But they are foiled when he calmly pulls out a gun and dispatches them. That drifter, with his taste for firearms and robbery, resurfaces later in the least focused of the film’s four narrative strands.

More satisfying is the story of coalmining company employee Dahai (Jiang Wu), a disgruntled former classmate of the corporate boss, who, along with the village officials, has forgotten his promises of profit sharing while whizzing around on his private jet. Having failed to convince the firm’s accountant to expose its financial inequities, Dahai disrupts the media moment of the chief’s return to town, met by a welcoming committee of ceremonial drummers and workers incentivized to look happy. In one of the film’s more startling bursts of violence, he gets reprimanded with a metal spade to the head.

The other compelling section has frequent Jia muse Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu, a receptionist in a sauna who has given her married lover an ultimatum either to divorce his wife or end their relationship. Jia sets up the knife in her rucksack a little too pointedly. But there’s a captivating momentum to the accumulation of frustrations that lead her to use it on an arrogant massage customer who refuses to accept that she’s strictly front desk-only.

The fourth and final chapter concerns Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a feckless young man who inadvertently causes an accident and is to be docked for the salary of his injured factory co-worker for the duration of his hospitalization. This prompts him to flee to a succession of short-lived jobs – including one as a greeter at a high-end sex club called The Golden Age, featuring hostesses in sexy versions of Chinese military uniforms.

In that concluding section, glimpses of tech factories in the international free-enterprise town of Dongguan inevitably conjure associations with the controversial plants where Apple products are manufactured. Jia emphasizes the dehumanizing aspect of these environments by showing a grim worker-housing complex called Oasis of Prosperity. The fact that wealth and influence are accessible only to the privileged few is acknowledged throughout the film with a borderline heavy hand.

The four fictionalized plot strands have their roots in real-life tabloid cases involving three murders and a suicide. But as assembled here, they make for a schematic narrative patchwork with scant emotional involvement. Many similar points about the growing discontent in post-reform China have been made more trenchantly by Jia in his other films, and the use of traditional opera as a mocking counterpoint to contemporary experience now seems somewhat pat.

Despite solid performances and many haunting images, there’s a disappointing banality to the film overall. Either the Dahai or the Xiao Yu story might have benefited from more robust development to make a standalone drama. But incorporated into this too-diffuse examination of escalating violence in a recklessly modernized society, their impact is dulled.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Zhao Tao, Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Luo Lanshan, Zhang Jiayi, Li Meng
Production companies: Xstream Pictures, Office Kitano, Shanghai Film Group Corporation, in association with Shanxi Film & Television Group, Bandai Visual, Bitters End
Director-screenwriter: Jia Zhang-ke
Producer: Shozo Ichiyama
Execuitve producers: Jia Zhang-ke, Masayuki Mori, Ren Zhonglun
Director of photography: Yu Lik-wai
Production designer: Liu Weixin
Music: Lim Giong
Editors: Matthieu Laclau, Lin Xudong
Sales: MK2
No rating, 133 minutes.

Cannes: China Buzzing Over Jia Zhangke’s ‘A Touch of Sin’

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