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China’s best films: A Touch of Sin

Revisit Jia Zhangke's bombastic, jarringly violent 2013 movie

Every week Time Out helps you expand your cultural intake for the weekend with the best Chinese movies, from our definitive list of the 100 best Mainland Chinese films of all time, as selected by China's critics and industry insiders.

This week, we're recommending taking a break from your wholesome run up to Christmas to catch Jia Zhangke's dystopic, jarringly violent A Touch of Sin. This time last year, the film was still awaiting a release in Chinese cinemas. It might be time to stop waiting for that one.

The film follows four loosely connected characters battling, in very different ways, with corruption and arrogance in China's new cities. The stories are based in fact but Zhangke gives them an action movie sheen that makes it impossible to look away.

A Touch of Sin

Dir Jia Zhangke, 2013; Drama

Chinese name: 天注定

100 best Mainland Chinese films ranking: 51

Touted as a return to the belligerent filmmaking of Jia’s rebellious early days, at a discussion about the film at the Asia Society in New York, the director defiantly declared, ‘I don’t have to pick up a gun, I can just pick up a camera.’

Continuing Jia’s latter-day trend of seeking to universalise the experience of suffering, A Touch of Sin is fragmented into four stories in four different parts of China. The stories are based on real events that caused a stir on Chinese social media platforms for their horrific acts of violence: a disgruntled miner wrings a bloody end to his corrupt village leaders; a migrant worker, home for the New Year, discovers the intoxicating power that comes with wielding a firearm; a pretty receptionist at a sauna takes matters into her own hands after she is assaulted by a wealthy client; and a young factory worker ends his life after seeing no other way out of his bleak situation.

The film has been described as Jia’s most mainstream effort yet – structured around Chinese Spring Festival, the acts of violence are a horrifying kind of catharsis to the indignities we see each of the characters subjected to. Jia’s point seems to be this: against the totalising structures of economic and social oppression of modern China, the only way in which one can resist, and to reclaim one’s sense of dignity, is through violence.

The film won the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes 2013.

See the full list of 100 best Chinese Mainland films of all time

Watch the official trailer for A Touch of Sin below (VPN required):

  • 4 out of 5 stars