It’s been banned in China, and no wonder. Writer-director Zhangke Jia’s quartet of based-on-fact tales of economic and social inequality driving ordinary people to violence is savagely critical of how that nation is racing to catch up with the rest of the industrialized and postindustrialized world. But what we see here looks very familiar indeed: Corruption and injustice creating a circle of disorder and death and protecting those who profit from it? Frustrated citizens made powerless by a vast economic machine that is actively hostile to their needs? No, A Touch of Sin depicts a vast cultural tragedy that is far from exclusively Chinese. Their stories, set in disparate places across China’s vast and vastly different landscapes, don’t much intersect, which only underscores how widespread the anger is: there is the miner (Wu Jiang) who has watched his “leaders” get rich selling off community assets and has had enough; there is the receptionist (Tao Zhao) at a “sauna” (read: brothel) who lashes out at a rich client who presumes ownership of her body; there is a migrant worker (Baoqiang Wang) who turns to literal daylight robbery on city sidewalks when he discovers the power a gun offers; there is a young factory worker (Lanshan Luo) driven to despair by the treadmill of underpaid, demeaning work he will seemingly never escape. (The latter’s plight is something we’ve all recently learned more about via the scandals of Apple’s Chinese factories.) An almost gentle horror hovers in the background throughout, of ravaged countrysides and apocalyptically polluted city skylines, punctuated by moments of shocking brutality — some all the more so for how unexpected they are — as those who’ve been ground down into near nothingness assert their individuality and self-determination in the only way that seems left to them. It’s a striking argument for the notion that the way we’ve organized the world is driving people to places of insane desperation from which there appears to be little escape.
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