TIFF 2013 Review: A TOUCH OF SIN Is A Touch Too Slight

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Almost a week after I screened A Touch Of Sin, I'm still trying to come to grips with my reaction to it. There's plenty to admire about Jia Zhangke's film, from its stark violence through its sweeping scope, but I can't help but come back to the fact that its 129 minute running time made it feel bloated and overwrought.

I admit forthrightly that the audience I saw the film with was enraptured with the work, there were murmurs of content after the lights went up. For this viewer, I found the heavy handed script (an award winner at Cannes) too overt to truly get into. I didn't need twenty minutes to get a point that was made fairly simply, it's not shocking for this audience member to see and hear that perhaps the massive social upheaval that has taken place over the last few decades in China has resulted in many victims overrun by events outside their control.

Depending on how you count, this is four stories in one, a bald episodic structure that feels less cohesive that I would have liked. While Chunking Express did wonders with two disparate yet connected tales, I felt Zhangke's film by the end drifted towards repetition and tedium. It's a shame, for the first two stories do mesh in delightful ways, clearly the two strongest elements of the film. Perhaps it's a factor of narrative expectation, but simply culling the last story (or integrating it into the third), making a more explicit tie-in to the first two, and snipping some 30 minutes from the film would have made for me a far superior film. For now, it suffers for me in much the same way that those that some feel Haggis' Crash does, heavy-handed episodicism versus the more elegant construction of multi storylines exhibited by the likes of Altman.

Still, this borders on judging the film for what I wanted it to be rather than for what it is. As its stands, it's a heavy handed indictment of modern Chinese culture, using these stories to show the rot underneath the nation's great rise. Again, it's hardly revelatory, but these ripped-from-the-headlines vingettes may well be considered "brave" in a nation that still very much is under the yoke of censorship.

The violence in the film is stylized, but I'm not sure I'd quite put it into the genre class of a wuxia genre film the way that TIFF programmer Giovana Fulvi argues. I also think that a second viewing of the film might actually be more promising, as it's the dreary, plodding plotting that most left me cold.

Still, I must be honest, when the fourth story began I though, oh dear, when is this going to end. There isn't necessarily reason for these tacked on elements, and a decent 45 minute buildup is squandered as the rest of the running time ambles along. I'd have rather spent more time on consequences rather than buildup, and found more believable many of the events that transpire if they didn't all feel like performances on a stage, as affected and dissonant as the Opera performances we see throughout the film.

I simply did not fall for the charms of A Touch Of Sin, it neither spoke to me on a deep emotional level nor did its visceral thrills impress. For 2013 I'll take my slow and somber re-contextualizing of violence in the form of a Refn-goes-to-Asia film Only God Forgives, while perhaps revisiting Zhangke's work sometime in the future.
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  • Mr. Cavin

    Nice review. I, on the other hand, have always wanted to see Chungking Express remarried to Fallen Angels in some kind of sprawling, literary mega-cut--so maybe I'm the lonely audience for this one? After all, repetition, if handled well, becomes texture.

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