Back in 2002, director Jia Zhangke slipped an unlikely Pulp Fiction reference into Unknown Pleasures, one of his glacial-slow portraits of a rapidly changing China. The scene, in which two shiftless teens talk about the 1994 indie milestone and then re-create one of its most iconic moments, was designed to communicate the influence of Western culture on Chinese youth. Pointedly, it did not seem like an affectionate nod to Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker whose funky, time-jumping methodology is basically the stylistic antithesis of Jia’s long-take austerity. Then again, if his new film is any indication, perhaps Jia has been a closet Tarantino fan all along. A somewhat radical departure for the director, A Touch Of Sin unfurls four disturbing, scarcely connected crime vignettes—all ripped, however loosely, from the headlines. Instead of offering a plateau of ennui, as his previous work has, the movie builds repeatedly to crescendo, pushing some desperate individual to the brink and then watching as he or she explodes into violence. The bloodshed is fast and brutal—the flash of a knife, a splash of crimson in a backseat, an opening robbery gone horrifically awry. There’s even a little Tarantino in the staging, as when a blood-splattered wallflower unleashes her Kill Bill-style vengeance straight into the camera lens.
Lest any diehard Jia fanatics fear they’ve lost an art-cinema master to the allure of stylized carnage, know that A Touch Of Sin is plainly the work of the same cultural critic who made The World and 24 City. Thriller framework aside, this is another of the director’s damning portraits of modern China, a place where centuries of tradition—and the civilians who practice it—are being swallowed whole by a sea of “progress.” Difference is, the long sigh of resignation that characterized Jia’s earlier films has morphed into a guttural howl of anger. The characters—a coal miner swindled by the government; a drifter robbing from the rich; a harassed hostess, played by Jia regular Zhao Tao; and a factory worker on the run—are blue-collar drones raging against their own marginalization. That makes each of the four segments, which reach across the nation and vaguely intersect one another, a kind of working-class revenge story. Jia looks at the news and sees patterns of discontent, each freak homicide symptomatic of a society that robs its have-nots of their dignity, their choices, and their sanity.
Yet as a polemic, A Touch Of Sin is a little ethically murky: By conflating a self-defense assault on a would-be rapist to the indiscriminate murders of a nomadic thief, the filmmaker risks creating a false equivalency—lumping in victims and victimizers, simply because all happen to live below the poverty line. As a series of one-act narratives, however, the film is intensely, consistently gripping. Displaying a heretofore hidden gift for slow-boiling tension, Jia mutates (perhaps temporarily) into a dynamic genre filmmaker, ramping up the dread during the build-up to an early rampage and—in Zhao’s chapter, the best in show—marrying his usual empathy and formal prowess to a downward spiral into madness. For this reliable auteur, a little thematic muddle is worth the dramatic detour; far from sinful, the touch of Tarantino reinvigorates his craft. Now how cool would it be to see QT smuggle a Still Life allusion into his next film-nerd smorgasbord?