A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding)

A Touch of Sin

Your life belongs to you. Stop caring what others do.

For us 1001 Bloggers, there is an expectation with each new edition of the Book as to what films will make the cut, either in the previous year, or with the minute amount of slightly older entries the editors decide to pick up now that they’ve been a little more well-known and regarded. Simply put, we like to think we know what films are going to be in each new edition before it comes out. Still, there are almost always a few surprises to be found; films we did not expect or see coming in the slightest. One of these films from the latest edition is Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, a film I had never known even existed before its inclusion, and, having now seen the film, I wonder how others have heard about it outside the list as well. Here comes my familiar disclaimer: this doesn’t mean A Touch of Sin is a bad film. What it is, however, I can’t say, because either the point of this film flew over my head so wistfully I didn’t even feel the air move, or the film didn’t have one to begin with.

The film is basically a fictional re-enactment of four real life incidents in China’s recent history; the four are only the loosest bit connected, if at all (more on this later). Each incident is centered on an act of violence, perpetrated by the main characters of each of the four tales, and the film spends most of the running time trying to get to know each of the characters before they commit whatever acts they end up committing. I say the word “trying” because I’m not fully certain the film really does succeed at setting up the characters and their story arcs before their respective incidents occur; the film chooses merely to spend just enough time in each character’s universe to set up their lives (if only barely), have them commit the act of violence, and then we drop them and move on to the next bit. It was weirdly disconnecting to watch such a film; it made the whole thing appear very pointless and shallow, and I was left wondering why I had even watched the film at all, which is definitely not something I go into a film expecting to feel on the other side of it. Also, despite my implying that there is a common thread, even a small one, between the four stories, there really doesn’t seem to be any actual arc tying the separate stories together; they are wholly separate and unconnected, save for perhaps a single incidental reference in one of the other stories seemingly put there by the script just to say that there is a connection between the tales and to have something to point to to back up said claim. In this, I can echo what other reviewers (including the film’s consensus on RottenTomatoes) have said in regards to wondering how this film ended up winning the Best Screenplay award at Cannes that year; the basic tenet of a script needing to set up a cohesive universe with all the necessary information for audience members to be able to lose themselves in it seems to have been thrown by the wayside in A Touch of Sin. All this said, the film has some quite nice cinematography, and the actual violence itself works really well for how visceral it is, mostly because of the sheer ennui and lack of violence in the rest of the film’s running time.

I’ve said numerous times in other reviews of topical foreign films with subtext to them that, me being an American and all and thus without the cultural subtext inherently ingrained into me as a native of whichever country the film is from, I largely have to watch said films at surface level due to all the missing information on my end. At that level, A Touch of Sin is very nearly a pointless film. If I were so negatively inclined, I could summarize the four plots of the film in the same way, with the same banal simplicity: “Characters are introduced, life happens, and then they go off severely either on others or on themselves. The end.” Knowing what I do about films, however, and including the small modicum of research I do into the films from the list I see, I know that there is more to this one than just that trite synopsis, and to merely watch this at the surface level is to look at an iceberg sticking up out of the water and assuming that what you see is the whole of the iceberg. I know this, and yet the inability for me, in A Touch of Sin’s case, to watch this film below the surface level is, even slightly, grating to me. I did do a little more digging around on the net into the film when I was done with it, and some of the subtext in each of the four stories makes a little more sense to me now, but the fact that I had to do that for it to make sense to me as much as it does is a little more annoying than I would’ve liked it to be. I can see how people can like this film; it is really well done, and the mood it sets up, coupled with the explosion of violence when it does happen, is very effective. I just didn’t see the need for this to be made in the first place, that’s all.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10


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