Blisteringly original, darkly funny and stylishly violent, A Touch of Sin is the best film I saw at the Dallas International Film Festival.
Though the four stories Zhangke tells are tangentially connected, they're all about characters pushed to the brink, and they all weave together to show a picture of a China that has grown uglier and more calloused as it's embraced capitalism and Western culture.
At least that's the viewpoint of writer-director Zhangke, who's been called the "Chinese Tarantino." I'd disagree with that comparison, mainly because he's a lot more focused than Tarantino ever was. But he's still prone to sprawl and stylized violence. Each main character commits an act of violence, though all are victims of circumstance.
The first story I found to be the most compelling. Dahal (Jiang Wu) is disgusted by his former colleagues who have privatized the formerly public lands and mineral rights of his village, buying up Maseratis and private jets while the workers can barely afford bikes to ride to work. His protests are met with laughter and even physical intimidation. But this is the clearest presentation of Zhangke's thesis: China's move toward capitalism has not only corrupted those most capable of gaming the system but has left behind hundreds of millions of workers in the process.
If there's a fault in the film, aside from its bloated runtime, it is that Zhangke goes heavy on the symbolism. In another vignette, a businessman literally beats a woman with a stack of cash, insisting that his money can buy anything. That's too obvious for a movie that doesn't need those big moments. Still, it packs a wallop throughout.
What's most distressing about Zhangke's vision of China today is how little people care when they encounter violence. It's just expected that anyone who tries to go up against someone of a higher station will get beaten or killed. Violence is just a way of life.
A Touch of Sin is stuffed to the gills with story, character and criticism, and for patient, thoughtful viewers, it's one of the most rewarding experiences of the year.