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Movie Review

A Touch of Sin

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Director: Jia Zhangke

Starring: Wu Jiang, Xiao Hui, Xiao Yu, Li Meng

Duration: 133 minutes

Certificate Club

1 of 3 Casual violence and seething anger  abound in A Touch of Sin
Casual violence and seething anger abound in A Touch of Sin
2 of 3 Capitalism as it operates in a coal mine in a cold climate
Capitalism as it operates in a coal mine in a cold climate
3 of 3 Money's too tight to mention: women are forced to become sex workers
Money's too tight to mention: women are forced to become sex workers

Watching A Touch of Sun, you allow for the fact that you are wearing Western glasses, as it were, and watching a Chinese film. If there is something you are not getting, if there are nuances you seem to be missing, then you might be getting ever so slightly lost in translation.

Unfortunately, that uneasy feeling stayed with your reviewer throughout the two hours and 13 minutes duration of this sprawling, poorly-edited exercise.

It begins with a young motorcyclist travelling through a remote mountainous region who guns down, in cold blood, three young hoodlums. So far, so straightforward. Is this going to be a murder mystery, Chinese-style? Well, no, in fact, all that gunfire leads nowhere in particular.

However, the film settles thereafter into a reasonably convincing, but totally different story, involving an embittered coal mine worker, Dahai (Wu Jiang). Dahai is deeply angry about his village chief and the boss of the mine and their sleazy greed and opulence.

The local villagers had owned the mine as a Communist collective, but opted to sign it over into private ownership in 2001. Forty per cent of profits had been promised, but the money has not been forthcoming. So Dahai goes on a bloody rampage. After the body count mounts up, you begin to wonder where is this all leading in terms of plot development? Again nowhere much actually.

That's because the film doubles back, into the rather desultory story of the young killer on the motorbike. He kills again, in a kind of nihilistic fury, on a street footpath. No one intervenes, the cops are not on his case. Five murders, if my sums are right, and nothing happens. Plain weird.

Then the movie takes us into two further, decidedly limp sagas, involving an affair between a married man and a sauna worker, then the romance between a much younger sex worker and a waiter. The viewer has been clutching at straws of stories with no resolution for over two hours.

Robert Altman was a maverick, so one doesn't feel one is being Hollywood-imperialist by suggesting that the director should have watched the late American director's Short Cuts very carefully. He might have learned something valuable about story-telling, texture and judicious editing.

Still, there may well be all-too-accurate illuminations within this film about capitalism, Chinese-style. What may appear curiously coded to Western eyes may ring far too true for Chinese audiences. 

Paddy Kehoe

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