Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke delivers the first verifiable dud of the Cannes Film Festival’s In Competition banner this year with A Touch of Sin, a four-part tableau examining the rife inequality cutting throughout the country’s society and how it so frequently bursts into violence. Despite the occasional moment of visceral outlandishness, this is largely an airy, low energy slog that likely sees low odds at scooping the esteemed Palme d’Or.
The four stories range from a beleaguered drifter meting out bloody revenge within his small mining town to a migrant worker who similarly discovers the liberating qualities of firearms, a cute receptionist pushed over the edge by her male clients and finally a young factory worker trying to improve his situation. The linking motif is, ostensibly, the violent resolutions that befall either the central characters of each segment or are enacted by them, a statement on the fraught status of China’s social infrastructure.
While these stories have reportedly been cobbled together from real-life events for the most part, there’s a disappointing lack of emotional engagement throughout, a result of Jia’s scant, spare approach. Cruising along at a glacial pace, almost all of the points of interest occur during the fitful bursts of grand guignol, some of which feel tonally opposed; one moment this is a quiet, sombre meditation on the state of the country and the next it shape-shifts into a Tarantino-esque gorefest. If the graphic violence is at odds with the film’s social concerns, that can only be the fault of the director.
At the film’s first screening for press, responses were largely muted to the film’s ill-placed attempts at humor, which neither satirize China’s economic chasm nor deliver much else of worth in lieu. While the skittish tone may keep audiences on their toes, it is largely at the expense of narrative consistency. The stories vary wildly in terms of pacing, from the more palatable rhythm of the opening killing spree to the more methodical heft later on. While the acting is universally strong, as are plenty of the images — though Jia’s digital look is unquestionably garish — the meandering, seemingly unfussed narrative does them few favors.
It is a most wearisome film precisely because it insists itself on the audiences for so long. The wildly uneven tales of murder, animal torture and sexual harassment might have been a little easier to stomach with a less-torturous runtime, but when unspooled over two-plus hours the result is a positively exhausting, frequently infuriating experience. Though the relentless grimness of Jia’s work here should be an angry, potent statement about the dire circumstances of his homeland, it is instead rendered fecklessly inert by way of the director’s style.
Those going into Jia’s film blind may find themselves riveted by the opening segment, only to be perplexed by what follows. There’s the overarching feeling that the director would have better spent his time developing one of the stories as a full feature, though again it’s difficult to imagine which would have been able to sustain even 100 minutes on screen. For a film that needs to make us care in order to succeed — and frankly shouldn’t have had to try hard — this is an almost completely unengaging film on an emotional level.
While likely to find a few supporters on the strength of its bracing visceral impact alone, the few rewards are simply too sparsely placed to make A Touch of Sin anything more than a dispiriting uphill climb destined to disappear into obscurity once its day at the Croisette is done.
The Upside: Jia’s film pops visually, offering memorable glimpses of the Chinese landscape; the performances across the board are rock-solid; brief bursts of violence are also well-handled, with grisly gore effects bringing the point home.
The Downside: The director fails to tie his stories together into a convincing or interesting thematic whole; the experience feels emotionally empty and disconnected; the disparity between the quiet drama and violent action also proves tonally jarring.
On the Side: Jia Zhang-ke is considered a leading figure of the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese directors.