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Föreningen Film i Malmö presents
A TOUCH OF SIN
Up and down contemporary China, Jia Zhangke imagines the violent fantasies of the powerless – and documents the violent fantasies of the mighty.
On a formal level, A Touch of Sin is a more pronounced iteration of Jia’s overarching aesthetic project. In Platform, Jia built on the lessons bequeathed by Hou Hsiao-hsien by demonstrating how one could turn the ontological promise of the Hou-style long take – uninterrupted duration as guarantee of a sovereign reality – into a heightened formalist endeavour; in all his films since then, he has explored the many ways in which documentary reality and sometimes blatant artifice can fuse, and how the latter can contribute to or help illuminate the former.
And just as Platform used an itinerant group of performers as a bellwether of the transition to a post-Communist China, Jia has kept theatricality front and centre throughout his subsequent films, from the elaborately costumed theme-park performers in The World (2004), to the transparent use of well-known actors amid the parade of real-life subjects in 24 City (2008), to the traditional theatre troupe whose closing, direct-to-camera address puts an appropriately explicit period to A Touch of Sin’s blunt, wholly unambiguous broadside.
To begin with the ruptures, in Sin Jia is most certainly tapping into the current and ongoing genre-fication of art/festival cinema (cf. the maladroit collected works of Park Chan-wook and Nicolas Winding Refn, Brillante Mendoza’s Sapi, Claire Denis’s Bastards, Olivier Assayas’s Boarding Gate etc). Robert Koehler in Cinema Scope has perceptively pointed out the sardonic, almost self-mocking way in which Jia introduces his genre-movie tropes in the film’s opening sequence, not only fetishising the implacable spaghetti-western cool of Wang Baoqiang’s motorbiking bandit and Jiang Wu’s duster-sporting rebel-with-a-cause but quite literally beginning with a bang, as a fireball announces the title (with its winkingly obvious reference to King Hu’s wuxia masterpiece A Touch of Zen).
Having thus frontloaded his generic touchstones, however, Jia spends much of the rest of the film undercutting them even as he quite brilliantly deploys them. Where the enclosed cinephilic universe of a Tarantino shuts itself off from the world while ludicrously claiming to comment on it, Jia’s no less artificial (im)morality play – in which four protagonists react with violence to their variously oppressed situations – sets itself down squarely within a doggedly depressing reality.
It’s that quality of directness, of purpose – here particularly fierce purpose – that gives Jia’s plays with fiction and nonfiction both their vigour and their political perceptiveness and bite. The spectacularised, individual violence of Jia’s ‘sinners’ is symptom of and reaction to the quieter but far more massive violence of the state-capitalist behemoth that has made the insanely unreal and unjust reality within which the protagonists exist.