Revenger's tragedy: Zhao Tao in A Touch of Sin.
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Rough justice: A Touch of Sin by Jia Zhangke

In A Touch of Sin, the ordinarily placid and reflective Chinese director Jia Zhangke bloodies his hands - creating technicolour violence from real, grisly stories which take aim at social injustice in China.

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment in A Touch of Sin when Jia Zhangke’s reputation for the calm and contemplative takes a definitive battering. Certainly, it is jeopardised in the opening minutes, when a migrant worker riding a motorbike along a dusty loop of mountain road has his path blocked by three bandits brandishing hatchets. Let’s just say that he gets to continue his journey and they don’t.

That encounter is a mild fracas compared with much of what follows. One man is whacked around the head repeatedly with a shovel; several others are shot at point-blank range; another leaps from a fifth-floor balcony. Admirers of Jia’s Still Life – which won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival and followed two bereft people searching for missing loved ones along the Yangtze River – would be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into the wrong screen. One of the aimless teenage characters in his 2002 film Unknown Pleasures revered Pulp Fiction but the chances of Jia turning into Quentin Tarantino looked slim, at least until now.

Beyond the spattered blood and broken bones, Jia’s usual levels of compassion and social analysis are maintained. When violence erupts, it is out of frustration at a society that nurtures the cruel and corrupt. Nowhere is this more explicit than in the first of the film’s four stories. Dahai (Jiang Wu) is a miner still smarting over the sale of a coal mine 14 years earlier by the village chief. The villagers have yet to see any of the promised profits and Dahai suspects they never will. He harangues the local accountant, accusing him of taking bribes, and tries to file charges against the chief, only to be stymied by bureaucracy. His face is permanently rigid with incredulity. Like many anti-heroes before him, he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. Rather than undermining the social-realist edge of what has gone before, the garish violence doled out by Dahai seems to amplify it. Brutality rarely feels gratuitous if its context has been carefully prepared.

Even so, the remaining stories in A Touch of Sin follow such a similar pattern – building from the domestic to the cataclysmic with horrible inevitability – that the film risks numbing the audience into resignation. The migrant from the opening scene crops up again, returning to his home town for his mother’s birthday and getting trigger-happy. A timid masseuse (played by Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao) musters the courage to give her married lover an ultimatum, which sparks a revenge attack from his wronged wife. And a young factory worker (Luo Lanshan) judged liable for a grisly workplace accident flees town and walks straight into another job that is no less soul-destroying. Anger at social injustice in China is the motivating factor behind the film; many of the incidents depicted were inspired by real events. There’s a thin line, though, between indignation and despair and A Touch of Sin isn’t always on the right side of it.

Working helpfully against the grain is the digital cinematography, which lends a vivid sparkle to the most desolate tableau. Framing the characters in wide shots that incorporate their oppressive surroundings is a textbook way of suggesting that people are the product of their environment but Jia’s regular cinematographer, Yu Lik-wai, adds something else. He brings nobility to figures who might otherwise have been reduced to the bestial. (The distinction between human beings and animals is a running theme; at one point, someone even asks whether animals can commit suicide.)

The images insist on humanity. The masseuse who grabs a quiet cigarette among rows of shower heads that loom like hooded cobras, or the injured miner who resembles Mr Bump in his cradle of bandages, could have looked pitiful. The tenderness of the camera transforms them into Nan Goldin subjects in William Eggleston landscapes.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era