Monday, November 11, 2013

36th Starz Denver Film Festival: A Touch of Sin (2013)

Conceived as an oblique, 21st-century take on the wuxia (literally "martial hero") film, where that genre’s perpetual rendering of motion is transformed and displaced onto China’s exceedingly mobile, circulating workforce, A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding, 2013) divides into four fluid, gently overlapping parts, with each centering on an economically marginalized protagonist. Working from mainland China’s snowy north to its subtropical south, director Jia Zhangke presents a remarkably comprehensive and detailed snapshot of China's economic and cultural present. The film opens with Dahai (the exceptionally charismatic Wu Jiang), a poor laborer incensed by his village chief’s failure to make good on an earlier promise. Dahai ultimately responds with extreme, even shocking violence in a segment that will confirm the pattern for each of the film’s subsequent three sections.

'Confirm' rather 'establish' as Dahai's Shanxi-set opening segment is preceded by a thematically generative triple killing perpetrated by the film's second subject, Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang). With Zhou's brief entry into and disappearance from Jia's narrative, the Mainland master begins his work of creating a national space that extends - and more importantly, persists - far beyond the limits of the filmmaker's frame. In audio-visual terms, Jia reinforces this sense of great spatial expanse with an aurally dense off-camera field (that emerges again beyond the boundaries of the film's graceful widescreen compositions). In this respect, A Touch of Sin continues the formal project of Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), whose Shanxi setting the Dahai segment expressly shares.

Geographically, Zhou's second section shifts into the Chongqing municipal location of the director's Three Gorges-themed Still Life (2006), with Zhou arriving by ferry boat - Still Life's preferred form of transportation and another in A Touch of Sin's exhaustive variety of conveyances. With Zhou disappearing again into the vast Mainland off-screen, A Touch of Sin transitions to long-time Jia axiom Zhao Tao, as the actress's Xiao Yu faces an uncertain future with her married, factory-executive lover. After being assaulted by the latter's spurned wife, Xiao finds herself in an even more perilous confrontation in her spa workplace. In the consequent explosion of violence, Jia's film breaks most decisively from any semblance of naturalism, with Xiao striking down her aggressors in manga-inspired moment of Japanese sword-play - not that there aren't other moments of the surreal: see the tiger's non-diegetic roar.

In spite of its uncharacteristic, Takeshi Kitano-influenced eruptions of violence (the effect and meaning of these seemingly unconnected incidents slowly accumulates over the course of the film) the writer-director's latest remains recognizably his own, from the aforementioned articulations of off-camera space to the post-communist kitsch on sale in the film’s fleshy final segment, a set-piece that brings to mind another of Jia's impressive array of masterworks, The World (2004). As the filmmaker surveys his homeland’s deeply troubled materialist present, he provides an almost comprehensive catalog of his many emphases, whether it is the injustices that his actors suffer, the motivations for the violence that in each instance is based on real events or even the multitude of regions and dialects to which the director gives cinematic voice.

This is all to suggest that there is admirable conceptual completeness to A Touch of Sin, which also functions as a kind of mid-career retrospective for one of China's greatest living directors. Indeed, Jia's Cannes prize-winning latest is no less than a major masterpiece and one of the year's very best films.

This piece was modified by Lisa and myself from my original Starz Denver Film Festival program notes, available here. Kino Lorber is doing the good work of distributing this great film in North America.

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