Saturday, June 01, 2013

A Touch Of Sin

This ultraviolent attack on Chinese consumerism is a stunning slap in the face from previously-sedate director Jia Zhang-ke, writes Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:

Cannes is a place for shocks, jolts and surprises. This change of artistic direction from Chinese film-maker Jia Zhang-ke offers plenty. He has been known until this moment for an intensely considered, quiet documentary realism — particularly in the 2006 movie Still Life, about communities preparing to be drowned in the service of China's Three Gorges hydro-electric Dam. So this brash, daring and often ultraviolent movie is atypical to say the least, avowedly inspired by the wuxia martial arts films of King Hu, but it has clear debts to Tarantino's riffs on this same genre, and to Sergio Leone. The idea of Jia Zhang-ke making his own Pulp Fiction or A Fistful of Dollars (or rather yen) might before now have seemed fanciful. But that is what he has done — or almost.

In fact, A Touch of Sin eventually moves back to the calmer, realist cinematic language more associated with this director in its final act. And the film is in any case not simply a racy adventure in exploitation, but an angry, painful, satirical lunge into what the director clearly sees as the dark heart of modern China, and a real attempt to represent this to audiences elsewhere in the world. He sees China as a globalised economic power player suffering a new and violent Cultural Revolution of money-worship in which a cronyist elite has become super-rich in the liquidation of state assets, creating poisonous envy in the dispossessed who hear all about others' wealth from the internet, and are supposed to gossip aspirationally about it on their mobile phones. A key scene in the film shows someone brooding over Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

It is a fractured and divided story, like shards of a shattered mirror. Different strands and characters and stories emerge, tangentially concerned with each other. Jia has taken his plotlines from newspapers, violent stories of criminal despair, and by meshing them together, these tales, often involving guns, build up a picture of China as a desolate Wild West of lawless violence and cynicism. A worker erupts with anger at how the mine-chief has somehow been able to afford a sports car and to lease a private plane. Three brothers coming back to their hometown for their mother's birthday reveal themselves to be deeply unhappy in various ways, and the unhappiness somehow always manifests itself in violence. Two have handguns: one casually slays three guys who have attempted to rob him on the road. Another, who has been telling his wife he has been travelling the country looking for work, reveals himself to be an ice-cool armed robber who doesn't scruple to murder women in cold blood for their expensive designer bags. Another is having an affair with a sauna receptionist (played by Jia's longtime leading actor Zhao Tao) and this too ends in a bloody confrontation.
More here.

China returns to the Cannes competition with Jia Zhang-ke's sobering view of festering discontent as the gap between the country's rich and poor expands, says The Hollywood Reporter

The widening chasm of social inequality separating the moneyed powerbrokers from the struggling masses – not to mention the despair and violence bred by that disparity – is a subject of saddening universality. Exploring those thematic lines in A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding), Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke only occasionally strikes chords that resonate, despite having distinguished himself as one of the most perceptive chroniclers of his country’s transition into 21st century nationhood in films like Platform and The World.

The English-language title of his seventh narrative feature is a play on King Hu’s 1971 martial arts epic, A Touch of Zen. And while that seems more a homage than a significant structural inspiration, there are certainly bloody genre elements here that are new to Jia’s work. But tonal inconsistency, lethargic pacing and a shortage of fresh insight dilute the storytelling efficacy of this quartet of loosely interconnected episodes involving ordinary people pushed over the edge.

As always, the visual compensations are considerable thanks to regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, whose eye for arresting detail is equally sharp whether trained on natural landscapes, assembly-line industrial communities, bleak mining towns or the crumbling remnants of China’s past.
More here.

The latest film from Chinese director Jia Zhangke would appear to be a departure from his previous acclaimed work. But on closer inspection, his particular cinematic DNA has been perfectly preserved. It’s just that, this time, there’s a lot more bloodshed than we’ve come to expect from him.

A Touch of Sin is Jia’s stab at more commercial filmmaking, although one should not confuse this ensemble drama with a conventional action movie or anything so easily accessible. (Jia made this film with the backing of Shanghai Film Group, a government-sponsored production company, which was a first for him.) The independent auteur of quiet character pieces like The World and Still Life has constructed a story about four loosely connected individuals whose lives are touched by violence or death. At its center are the same concerns that have always interested Jia—namely, how ordinary Chinese citizens are adapting to the rapid economic development of their nation. As usual, the characters struggle mightily with that proposition. But in A A Touch of Sin, their anguish is expressed in gunfire and knife fights. This is less an action movie than it is an acting-out movie.

Rather than adopting the Crash/Babel style of multi-character drama in which the protagonists’ stories overlap and also intersect, Jia has essentially made four short films, with a character from one story moving into the next sequence, the pattern repeating until the end. But what unites them all is their misery. In one segment, a disgruntled miner (Jiang Wu) decides that he’s finally had enough of his callous, corrupt bosses and the mine’s rich owner, taking up arms against them. In another, a receptionist (Zhao Tao) engages in a fruitless affair that barely takes her mind off her menial job and boorish clientele.
More Here.

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