Glenn: For whatever reason, Asian cinema doesn’t get too much exposure in cinemas over this side of the ocean. The discrepancy between words written about the subject and people actually seeing them is entirely out of whack, don’t you think? We all seem to hear about these fabulous movies from around the region and yet outside of a film festival it appears all but impossible to catch them, which makes these festivals so vital. Seems like a massive missed opportunity if you ask me, but then I don’t propose to know anything about the movie-watching habits of mainstream or arthouse audiences. I doubt a film like Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin will attract more than middling crowds upon its October 4th release date (curiously during New York Film Festival, so they’re surely cutting into their modest box office expectations already), but that would be expected for any 135-minute, violent indictment of rapid capitalism. One as formally rigid and didactic as this even more so. However much I wish it weren't the case.
It’s not a coincidence that Jia’s rise to prominence as the pre-eminent cinematic purveyor of modern day China began right about the time China began its rise as a global super-power. He’s likely China's finest examiner of the country’s industrial transformation with films such as Venice Golden Lion winner Still Life, fellow Cannes competitor 24 City and observational documentary Useless. With A Touch of Sin he’s taken to his homeland’s obscene capitalism and he's not acting subtle. Hello, one scene features a woman get mistakenly for a prostitute and subsequently assaulted with thick wads of cash! Still, it’s a technical marvel and has a propulsive edge if you give in to its peculiar structure. Jose?
Jose: A Touch of Sin might be one of the angriest movies made in recent years. Winner of the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes awarded by none other than Steven Spielberg, it is a bleak saga in which characters are connected through their disappointment and eventual violent revenge. Knives, guns and explosives are used indiscriminately to show how China is sinking into an endless pit of corruption and violence and – eek – there seems to be no way of stopping it.
This film takes place in a country where miners are forced to deal with old horses with whips while their employers parade around in Audis and brand new jets. A country where shooting someone in the head over their designer purse or fellating tourists while dressed up like a train conductor are simply means of making a living. There is no hopeful outcome in the movie and watching it proves to be an experience as harrowing as it is terrifying. Jia cleverly populates it with moments of dark humor, only to then hold a mirror to our faces and ask us if we know how much we’re contributing to this decay. It’s rare to see cinema – or art for that matter – so furious and bleak.
Glenn: Agreed. A Touch of Sin is a film that has grown exponentially in my mind since viewing it just a couple of days ago. The way images of tranquillity and brutality are beautifully juxtaposed thanks to cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, the way Giong Lim’s music underscores the imagery with throbbing harmonies, the way its ratcheting suspense and cathartic release duel for supremacy… it’s a towering achievement and a new, even more uber-provocative side of the filmmaker that NPR hailed "the most important filmmaker working in the world today." It is a tough watch, and its structure could easily infuriate, but seeks to constantly rattle the audience to its message.