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.
The Video and Audio
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.