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After some moments of silence, the master of the sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers, Jia Zhangke returns with his newest feature "A Touch of Sin" (2013) which might just be his darkest work to date. It's an intriguing film of sheer brilliance told through the complexity of several, loosely connected stories about people in agony. While some fans of the director may be disappointed by the lack of clairvoyant lyric beauty, characteristic for example for "Still Life" (2006), others may find the narrative ambiguity and incoherence rather enriching.
The film begins with an enigmatic scene at a deserted rural highway where a truck carrying tomatoes has fallen over. A cold sense of brutality breathes in the air. Soon the first characters are introduced and we learn that, in the same way as in "Still Life", "A Touch of Sin" is structured from different stories with different human fates. In brief, it tells the story of four random acts of violence in today's society.
Although the stories lack obvious connection, they all share a few essential elements. First of all, they all escalate to an outburst of violence. Second, all of them are tales of social rootlessness and existential alienation. The latter remark is congruous with the fact that in all of Zhangke's films the general aspect meets the particular in a poignant fashion of chill and solitude. Individuals live in their personal prisons while the modernization of the society brings nothing but empty freedom. In other words, they live in spaces that are both private and public where they feel utterly detached. No one belongs anywhere in the Zhangke universe.
Due to the complexity of several stories, the film also includes more than one central milieu. However, this seemingly arbitrary set of different settings of hotels and a coal miners' town do tell us about veritably similar subjects. All the spaces are haunted by the same problems. Such conflict of ambiguity and coherence should not frighten the spectator. Since instead of a straight-forward narrative with clear character delineation, Zhangke offers us a fascinatingly cynical cross-section of the contemporary Chinese society which is, on the one hand, characterized by economic boom to whose technological wonderland an individual may vanish, and, on the other, the tormenting but also comforting legacy of Mao.
Modern Chinese way of life appears to Zhangke as something diverse -- as something that is in a constant state of change. Like in his previous features, Zhangke once again focuses on the transforming reality, the current flow, and its consequences on the individuals. Although this was already done to an extent in "Still Life" through the complexity of two overlapping stories, it also cast hope in humanity, whereas "A Touch of Sin" is far more pessimistic.
Once again Zhangke's aesthetics of cinema is characterized by the elements of silence and emptiness in the images of loneliness and alienation. It is as though everything had died. Only violence is portrayed passionately, all the rest is understated. The violence in "A Touch of Sin" is raw and brutal, but essentially stripped. Above all, violence appears as a melancholic undertone of some kind which reveals the realities of the society.
Even if the opaque and complex narrative of "A Touch of Sin" left the viewer speechless and unable to describe what he or she had just seen, there is always something profound to admire in Zhangke's cinema. In his films there is always that certain mood which is quite difficult to be put in words. In brief, it is a mood of emptiness, but also of utter richness.
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