There is probably more crime, violence, and bloodshed in any one quarter of Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin than can be found in his preceding eight features combined. The themes remain the same–ordinary people struggling to adapt to China’s headlong, full throttle embrace of a globalized world–but Sin’s more dynamic, visceral approach could hardly be more apposite to the quiet, patient probing of the state of his nation that characterizes Jia’s earlier work. Jia devotees, suspicious of this change of pace, could be forgiven for questioning whether the filmmaker himself had been infected by the very Western-centric, modernized ideology he had previously critiqued.
There is, of course, much more to A Touch of Sin than either of its obvious touchstones–King Hu’s wuxia epic, A Touch of Zen (1970), and the overlapping, post-modern portmanteau thrills of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (more overtly referenced in Jia’s Unknown Pleasures from 2002). Blame the ‘auteur theory’ perhaps, for being so invested in defining a filmmaker’s style and subject matter, from Hitchcock’s voyeuristic thrillers, to Ozu’s understated domestic dramas, to Scorsese’s guilt-infused, masculinity-in-crisis street tales, that any deviation from tried-and-tested methods is somehow suspect. A Touch of Sin is, however, at once very different from, and yet utterly consistent with, Jia’s body of work. Absorbing, accomplished, layered filmmaking with bold, daring shifts in tone and approach are more versatile and experimental than one might have assumed: In other words, the textbook hallmarks of a movie that is worthy of inclusion in a 21st century cinematic canon.