A TOUCH OF SIN (TIAN ZHU DING) (director/writer: Jia Zhang-ke; cinematographer: Yu Likwai; editors: Matthieu Laclau/Lin Xudong; music:  Lim Giong; cast: Zhao Tao (Xiao Yu), Jiang Wu (Dahai), Wang Baoqiang (Zhou San), Luo Lanshan (Xiao Hui); Runtime: 125; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Shozo Ichiyama; Kino Lorber; 2013-China-in Mandarin, with English subtitles)

"It's a brilliant lyrical film, shot on a grand-scale."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The outstanding Chinese writer-director Jia Zhang-ke ("The World"/"Still Life"/"24 City") explores in a not too subtle manner violence and corruption in modern-day Red China. It's a brilliant lyrical film, shot on a grand-scale, whose fictionalized plot was inspired by four shocking true events taking place in different provinces, that forced the world's fastest growing economy to take a closer a look at its materialistic policies, its growing rootless population, its rapidly changing cultural attitudes, and rapidly increasing divide in social inequality.

The film opens on a powerful visceral note as youthful motorcyclist, Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), wearing a Chicago Bulls knit hat, is stopped on a winding isolated road by three men brandishing axes and announcing a robbery. The motorcyclist calmly pulls out a pistol and guns all three down. He will later resurface as one of the four protagonists in the dramas, as he returns to celebrate his mom's 70th birthday in the southwestern city of Chongqing and later is shown leaving his wife and child to act as a cold-blooded drifter robber and killer--someone who enjoys using his gun to kill the new rich middle-class.

The film's most satisfying story has angry coal miner Dahai (Jiang Wu), in northern Shanxi province (Jia's birthplace), incensed at his former classmate now the company boss, who became filthy rich selling the village coal mine and pocketing the money instead of splitting the spoils with the villagers as he was required to do. Dahai also has it in for the corrupt village police chief for being bribed to go along with the charade and the company accountant for not speaking up about it. When Dahai is rebuffed from signing a complaint to the government office in Beijing and then gets viciously paddled with a metal spade for accusing the Boss of wrong-doing at a welcome home reception when his plane arrives, he acts to mete out his own brand of justice with a rifle.

The most unappealing story (as far as I'm concerned) has Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife), a receptionist in a sauna, in the central Chinese province of Hubei, who has given her wavering married lover an ultimatum either to divorce his wife or she will end their relationship. Her lover is searched by the authorities before taking the doomed train back to his wife and he's forced to hand a paring knife found in his luggage over to Xiao before permitted to travel. On the job, when an obnoxious sauna customer refuses to believe she's not a prostitute and beats her with a stack of money, Xiao cracks and fatally stabs him with the paring knife.

The final episode has the 19-year-old aimless and gentle Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), while making small talk at a factory assembly line inadvertently divert the other worker's attention causing an accident. The factory boss orders Xiao's salary to now go to the injured party as long as he's unable to work. Deeming this unfair, the youngster flees to the industrial city of Dongguan, one where Cantonese is spoken instead of the lad's Hunan dialect. Xiao is discouraged by a few short-lived jobs not panning out and ends up working in a fancy hotel as a greeter for rich clients seeking prostitutes dressed in sexy military uniforms. On the job Xiao falls in love with one of the prostitutes until watching her role play with an arrogant client and then becomes completely turned off and runs away. The anguished lad, feeling so dehumanized by events that he can't come to grips with his life, is pushed beyond his breaking point and commits suicide.

What all the protagonists have in common is that they don't fit into contemporary China and feel degraded and oppressed.

The filmmaker won the Best Screenplay award at the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival.

REVIEWED ON 5/24/2014       GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"