In various parts of China, where industrialization is beginning to take hold, four violent incidents occur. A man in a village (Wu Jiang), frustrated by the success one villager has attained screwing the rest over, decides to speak up. A husband (Baoqiang Wang) returns home briefly to see his mother, only to pull back once again from his responsibilities. A young woman (Tao Zhao) having an affair with a married man is swept up in a local conflict between workers and the townspeople. Finally, a young man (Lanshan Luo) responsible for a workplace accident tries to find better work elsewhere. In terms of the people involved, the places they occur, and the reasons why, the acts of violence are totally unrelated, but taken together, they suggest a certain unrest among Chinese citizens, who may be losing their humanity to the march of progress.
A Touch of Sin is a somewhat frustrating movie, in that what makes it hard to connect with is also part of its artistic purpose, and the resulting dischord is not only a calculated risk on the part of filmmaker Zhangke Jia, but also one that not every viewer will be struck by. It's also a film that often feels like a cry of frustration, one that may be more strongly felt by those who feel the same way about the current state of economic or sociopolitical affairs in China, or the world at large. Although the film only had a limited hold over me on an emotional level, I fully respect what Jia is trying to do with the movie, and commend his skill at doing it -- the distance here is personal more than artistic.
The idea of dehumanization runs through each of the stories, starting with the upset villager, Dahai (Jiang). It comes at him from both sides: being treated like an inferior by a former friend or neighbor is an emotional and psychological assault on his self-worth, yet his quest for revenge or justice is all-consuming. When he speaks at a homecoming celebration and is beaten as a result, an offhanded comment made by an assistant gives way to the last straw: the nickname "Mr. Golf." Even speaking up robs him of his identity. The second strongest is the final chapter: Xiao Hui (Luo) accidentally distracts his co-worker, who is then injured. With the threat of paying the bill hanging over his head, Xiao flees to another province where he becomes a waiter in a high-class hotel. When he falls in love with one of the escorts (Meng Li), asserting his feelings starts a chain of events that saps him of his autonomy -- he owes everything to someone else, and all that remains is hopelessness.
The other two vignettes take a slightly different tactic. Zhou San (Wang) and Xiao Yu (Zhao) are both isolated within themselves, but for opposite reasons. Zhou seems to have no soul, a cold-hearted killer who seems to resent his family and feels nothing when it comes to strangers. His outburst of violence is the one that is totally unprovoked and has no deeper explanation beyond plain necessity. Conversely, Xiao is mostly free of that cynicism. At her job, working as a receptionist in a massage parlor, she seems peaceful enough. She is frustrated with her boyfriend's reluctance to divorce his wife and move in with her, but pragmatic. Like a disease, violence finds its way to her, infecting her until she has no choice but to react. Although the scene in question is a little stagey, Zhao's performance is excellent.
Much like the characters are alienated, Jia keeps them at a distance from the viewer, observing them and the situations that lead to their violent outbursts, while refusing to offer any sort of commentary on the moral aspects of it. The viewer is never told whether or not Dahai's gripes are true or inflated through his rage, although Jia does illustrate the mechanics of industry with a certain cynicism (the cramped apartment complex provided for workers in the final segment is adorned with a sign that says "Oasis of Opportunity," and the manager drops by the factory floor to congratulate Xiao Hui on joining "a Fortune 500 company" and promises that employees may be rewarded with a trip to corporate headquarters). It's a distancing technique that results in more analysis than emotion, but it effectively stirs up some of the sense of hopelessness that the characters feel. Jia also makes great use of that objectivity in its last fifteen minutes, when he chooses which characters were the most affected by their incident, and who those people choose to blame.
Kino offers A Touch of Sin on Blu-Ray with the original theatrical poster art, an evocative image of Wu Jiang biting down on a tomato from a crashed truck while an explosion goes off in the distance. As with most of Kino's Blu-Rays, the back cover is pretty text-heavy, but nicely arranged. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
A Touch of Sin was shot on digital, and it's evident in the Blu-Ray's 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation. Although fine detail is routinely excellent and many scenes offer the kind of vibrant, eye-catching color that Blu-Ray is adept at, black levels are terribly crushed throughout, obscuring detail and appearing generally unnatural (sometimes taking on deep purple or grayish tints). Occasionally, ghosting is visible, which I expect is inherent to the source material, but it is not very common. In low lighting, the image gets a little noisy or blocky, although no compression artifacts from the Blu-Ray authoring are noticeable, nor is banding an issue. A strong visual presentation overall, but not one without a few distracting issues.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is much less problematic, somehow capturing the cold and distant nature of the film itself. Occasional action, including gunfire and explosions sound good, but music sounds even better -- the film ends on a particularly affecting performance. Much of the time, however, the track simply captures stark ambience, and does so to great effect. English subtitles are provided.
Although I sense A Touch of Sin didn't hit me as strongly as it hit others, a certain amount of alienation and distance is by design, as this is a story about being isolated in a clinical, emotionless world. Recommended, even with my reservations, the transfer's limitations, and the lack of extras.
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