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Inequality and its toll roil changing China in 'Touch of Sin' ★★★ 1/2

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

5:10 PM EST, November 21, 2013

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A brutally eloquent panorama of modern China, "A Touch of Sin" amalgamates four stories of violent revenge, inspired by factual events, to create a treatise on socioeconomic injustice and where it can lead.

It's an extravagantly bloody picture, which is something new for its writer-director, Jia Zhangke. His earlier works include the brilliant "24 City" and "Still Life," more plaintive portraits of workers struggling to adapt and survive in an inequitable global marketplace.

"In my old films," the director said in a recent interview, "the characters also lived under certain kinds of pressures but they ... tolerated the pressure." "A Touch of Sin" exists across the border of tolerance.

The film opens in the mountainous Shibawan region, where a skinny young man in a Chicago Bulls hat murders three highway robbers. This prologue leads to the first story, that of Dahai (Jiang Wu), an ex-soldier fed up with the graft and corrupt big shots in his village.

"You'll be a loser all your life," the village chief says to him, dismissively, when Dahai informs him he'll be reporting the corruption to state officials. The carnage that follows, targeting innocents and snakes alike, satisfies the character's blinkered desire to see justice done, however roughly. This is an animalistic society, as Zhangke's images of whipped horses and slaughtered foul reinforce throughout "A Touch of Sin."

The remaining three stories, each about a half-hour in length, provide variations on the theme. A migrant's dislocated existence leads to a bloody resolution outside a bank. A sauna receptionist (Zhao Tao, married to the director) is pressured into prostitution by a couple of free-spending customers. "I'll smother you in it!" one says, referring to the fistful of yen in his hand. He slaps her across the face with the money, over and over. She responds not with compliance, or any sort of monetary transaction, but with a knife.

The fourth story involves not a literal murder, but the killing of a soul and a downward chronicle of desperation, as a factory worker and sometime hotel employee tries one thing, then another, simply to stay alive. If "A Touch of Sin" sounds grimly deterministic in its approach, well, it is. The writer-director is trying new and brazenly expressive cinematic resolutions to age-old problems. The polemics are both oblique and on-the-nose, but this is beautiful and fluid filmmaking. Jia affords us a series of contemporary fairy tales about how the West and Western ways won over a nation marching into its own chasm between haves and have-nots.

mjphillips@tribune.com

 "Touch of Sin" - 3 1/2 stars

No MPAA rating (violence, language)

Running time: 2:05; in Mandarin with English subtitles

Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre