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.