A Touch Of Sin

It’s beautiful.
It’s serious.
It’s depressing.
I loved it.

Interwoven stories taken from recent real life Chinese news stories culled from Weibo that paint a portrait of its citizens struggling to cope with the dehumanising onslaught of capitalism.

The desolate landscapes of building sites constantly erecting, anonymous grey fabricated husks of prisonesque living quarters, hotels and massage parlours. This is industry on a massive scale with a panorama straight from epic westerns. Inside which the characters travel through as lab mice struggling for some purpose beyond their comprehension. It looks stunning. The camera swoops and pans and frames to perfection. Think Robert Bresson; it’s that tight.

Director Jia Zhang-ke, from a Q & A at a screening in New York:
“The expansion in China has been so fast, there’s been no room for the system to catch up with any kind of humanity.”

Certain emblems of status from the West appear, in one sense, as we see them: advertised in slick promotions between the pages of glossy magazines or half-time at sporting events. But they’ve been taken out of context and placed within crumbling economic surroundings. A polished and sleek high performance car parked alone in front of a decrepit industrial factory is so out of place with the rest of the struggling society within this landscape that it not only loses its appeal, but becomes a grotesque mockery of the vacuity to want something so luxurious.

These symbols of power become subverted from any original marketed desirability and are transformed into menacing and dangerous predatory animals.

An immigrant killer, ‘star’ of the second story, wears a Chicago Bulls hat. It’s strange enough and out of place enough on its own to jar. But when, post lethal armed robbery, he’s sat atop a moped following a truck transporting bulls herded together for slaughter, with this blank fascination on his face as he cranes his neck studying the animals (affinity? pity? almost-comprehension?), such images merge into a poetic dissonance of brutality and branding. The film offers many such lyrically framed moments.

Humans resonate within the animal kingdom throughout the film. Each story contains someone trapped whose last resort is violence. The protagonists, without options, try flight, end up having to fight. Both are futile. And unlike, say, a Tarantino film, we’re shown enough to empathise with these acts when they come. Jia Zhang-ke grants them individual dignity, but ultimately each character is ineffectual in breaking free from being merely another commodity.

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