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April 08, 2014

A Touch of Sin

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Tian zhu ding
Jia Zhangke - 2013
Kino Lorber BD Region A

I saw the name of Office Kitano in the opening credits. I had forgotten that Jia had made past films in collaboration with this production company. And for those who don't know, that is the production company of Takeshi Kitano. Hopefully, anyone reading this has some familiarity with Takeshi Kitano. The context of the violence in Jia's film is quite different though.

I wouldn't pretend to know enough about life in China. The characters are those most marginalized in the changed economic landscape. The film is made up of four loosely connected stories of people who have nothing, and nothing to lose. Extreme actions are taken against those who become extremely wealthy at the expense of others, or simply find ways to exploit others for their own gain. And even though the film takes place in China, there is the uneasy feeling that some of the stories could well be transposed to other countries, including the U.S. One could say that the film lays a persuasive argument against privatization, especially of land and resources. All of the stories are based on true events. The title translates as "Ill-fated".

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Maybe it's my own reaction, but the sense of irony and wry humor of Jia's past films seems to have been replaced by a sense of despair. There are those who still have some appreciation for China's cultural legacy, but what brings in the rich male tourists are young women in sexed up Red Guard uniforms or Chinese opera headdresses worn with bikinis. Jia's films have been examinations of the effects of modernization in China, but this is certainly his harshest work.

For a good sense of context, there is Tony Rayn's article from Film Comment. It should be pointed out that Rayns was responsible for the English language subtitles. Still, I appreciate the explanation for the English language title with its phonetic resemblance to King Hu's A Touch of Zen.

As a cinephile, I found it interesting that the two films within the film were excerpts of films by Hong Kong filmmakers Johnny To (Exiled) and Tsui Hark (Green Snake). Unlike Jia, To and Hark have been making films that have been designed to cater to mainland Chinese audiences, keeping in mind the dictates required for approval prior to release. While there has been discussion by others on considering A Touch of Sin a wuxia film, it is helpful to know that the term literally translates as "armed hero", and more specifically someone from one of the lower classes that is compelled to use a weapon as a means of achieving social justice or to use against an oppressor. Stylistically, Jia doesn't share the flashy techniques of the other filmmakers mentioned. What the four have in common is rooted in the stories from the past.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 8, 2014 08:11 AM