A Touch of Sin

Who knew writer-director Jia Zhangke, the pre-eminent purveyor of cinematic China-in-transition poetry, had such a fury building up in him? A gunplay-intensive revenge epic is not the expected thing from this smooth art-house operator, so is A Touch of Sin some kind of sly genre subversion, or has Jia finally sold out? In any case, this geographically expansive panorama of a deeply troubled modern China must count as a bold and bloody departure for Jia, whose familiar manner of artful, wistful reflection gives way here to some extraordinarily aestheticized shock tactics. After a stunning and shrewdly disorienting overture, the filmmaker uses his trademark meditative pacing to delineate a de facto Wild West replete with ruthless corruption, hordes of have-nots in dire straits, and the trickle-down debasement of callous lethal violence. Yu Lik-wai’s exquisite cinematography prioritizes main-player focus in a blur of rough-edged, ominously hazy background landscapes, and an arresting signature image emerges, of blood-specked Jia regular Jiang Wu in trench coat and toting a tiger-flag-wrapped shotgun. He and the other three leads, Wang Baoqiang, Zhao Tao, and Luo Lanshan, inhabit their respective episodes so fully as to suggest a collective self-immolation. Wherever Jia intends to go with this exceptional film, it’s clearly a place from which there’s no going back.