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Over the past few years, our view of modern China — at least as culled from news reports — has been that of a country whose economy has grown so fast that the center cannot hold. Put another way: How can the inhabitants of one country possibly buy so many luxury handbags? China's economic fortunes may have begun ticking downward, which raises an even more important question: What happens to those who were left out of the boom in the first place? Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin, comprising four loosely interwoven stories based on real incidents in the filmmaker's home country, puts a human face — four faces, actually — on what it means to be a have-not in modern China.
It's not a pretty sight: A Touch of Sin is by turns languorous and, for Jia, surprisingly brutal, a far cry from despairing but placid pictures like The World. A miner (Jiang Wu), disgusted by corruption among his village leaders, goes on a mini-rampage that's both horrifying and brazenly comic. A migrant worker (Wang Baoqiang) traveling home for the New Year's holiday fights back when he's attacked by thugs on the road. Later, with his family, he tries to articulate the listlessness he feels in his life and the sense of power that comes with firing a weapon: "Shooting guns isn't boring." A receptionist at a massage parlor (Jia regular Zhao Tao) attempts, politely at first, to rebuff the advances of two rubes who try to bully her into servicing them. She finally loses her cool, and the action she takes is momentarily exhilarating but ultimately rings hollow.
As it turns out, Jia has a knack for orchestrating violence: The brutality is just stylized enough to have a kick, though you always feel its emotional weight. (Jia has said that the people and incidents in this movie remind him of something you might see in King Hu's martial-arts films; in fact, the movie's English title is a riff on Hu's A Touch of Zen.) Still, the temperate lyricism of Jia's earlier pictures isn't completely absent, particularly in the final segment, in which a young man (played by newcomer Luo Lanshan) takes a job at a brothel and falls in love with one of the sex workers there. Their workplace is a glittery world-within-a-world that's a complete illusion: The prostitutes dress up as showgirls, nurses, cutie-pie soldiers — anything to satisfy the whims of their customers.
But the young man and his friend find their greatest comfort in the natural world, when they travel to a Buddhist temple to free goldfish into a pool. Their happiness is fleeting and piercing. In A Touch of Sin, Jia is attuned to, and saddened by, the violence he sees creeping through his country, caused at least in part by the ever-widening disparity between rich and poor. He ends on a note that's more haunting than hopeful. Even if the worst sins can be forgiven, forgetting them may be much harder.