A Touch of Sin is a sort of anthology film made up of four episodes (plus a prologue) loosely based on actual events. Each episode builds to an outburst of violence. The prologue has a motorcyclist confronted by three highwaymen, only he's the guy with the gun. The first actual episode sets a high bar for the rest of the picture. A local Party leader has privatized some collective property and a disgruntled local (Jiang Wu) thinks the rest of the community hasn't gotten their fair share of the proceeds. He grows monomaniacal and paranoid about it. He confronts the leader at an airport and is beaten down. He wants to inform the central leadership in Beijing about this apparent corruption but can't get his letter mailed because he doesn't know the address of the leadership compound. Naturally he assumes that the poor postal clerk is part of a conspiracy against him. Finally he goes on an amoklauf through his town, blowing away the bureaucrats and toadies who've oppressed him, but also blasting a man who seems to have nothing better to do than flog the horse that draws his wagon. It's startling to see Jiang stroll through the streets unimpeded, his rifle hardly concealed by a blanket; it's as if the Chinese, some of whom watch him march past them, simply can't imagine someone going on an American-style rampage with a gun, though everyone in the country is painfully aware of a spate of knife rampages that make the recent episode in a Pennsylvania high school look literally like child's play. Jiang Wu is a powerful presence and his lethal walkabout is a showstopper in the first act that Jia is hard pressed to top.
Perhaps to give us a breather, the second episode is the slightest, with a young man going to the big city to kill and rob. Jia's back at full strength for the third episode, which gives us the poster-art moment above. A woman gets dumped by her boyfriend and gets an unwelcome proposition at a sauna-hotel. Jia builds up to her explosion in Scorsesean style as her would-be john lashes her face repeatedly with a wad of yuan bills, boasting of his wealth and figuratively threatening to rape her with it. She finds a knife and guts him, then makes her way out of the place as people recoil in terror as she unconsciously or self-consciously strikes menacing poses with the knife. For all the film's violence, the money scene is literally the film's money shot, the one I'll remember for the way it goes on forever, to the point when the victim may be the last person to snap. It puts across as well as any moment in the movie Jia's apparent point that something's got to give if things keep going the way they are.
The final episode is anticlimactic only in the sense that it lacks the cathartic violence of the first and third stories. In this one a textile worker quits a job after his small talk is blamed for a colleague's accident and he's forced to pay the colleague's wages while the latter recuperates. He finds work as a waiter in a swanky hotel catering to the Chinese elite. This episode may have been the most offensive to the government since it suggests a wholesale betrayal of revolutionary ideals. A gaggle of showgirls -- or are they hookers -- parades through one suite in sexed-up Red Army (or are they Young Pioneers?) costumes as a military march plays. One elite customer demands that a hooker dress up as a train conductor rather than a nurse before giving him a blowjob. Our hero, meanwhile, suffers from hopelessness rather than outright victimization. No fantasy of revenge for him: instead, he jumps off a balcony, and Jia's camera follows him, from across the street, all the way down. An epilogue bookends the film as the latest of several exotic religious or quasi-religious figures drifting through the film asks a crowd if they know what sins they've done. Jia closes with a shot of the crowd and the implication that everyone shares the blame for what's become of China.
Throughout, there's an uneasy tension between social realism, with a satiric sting, and generic violence. Jia might have done without so much blood, but he may have thought it necessary to convey the reality of violence. Instead, it makes Touch of Sin look like an action or crime movie and imposes an unwanted, superfluous level of unreality, depending on how you see movies. Worse, the unreal perspective that allows us to follow the suicide all the way down until he plops on the pavement will make the scene look unintentionally funny to some viewers. Regular readers should know that I don't have any problem with extreme violence or gore in movies, but some movies don't need it, and I think Touch of Sin is one of those. I get that Jia is warning his country that people are going to keep snapping and that more violence is coming. But the way he presents the violence makes it look like an end unto itself rather than the consequence of the corruption that's his actual subject. Is it a film about a corrupt society or a film about crazy people who kill? Some viewers might be hard pressed to answer. Jia may have meant the violence as exclamation points, but they end up blunting somewhat what remains a forceful portrait of a society in crisis. The Chinese government may feel antsy about it, but I suspect that when foreigners watch it, wherever they watch,they'll be thinking less about China than about how familiar these injustices seem.