"China is still changing rapidly," writer and director Jia Zhangke observes in the production notes for A Touch of Sin. "Violence is increasing."
That's the starting point for this remarkable, Palme d'Or-nominated anthology film, which tells four stories of contemporary China, all of them involving hideous brutality. The stories are based on real events, Jia notes. People in China know about them.
Before the first story begins, we see a prologue, a vignette. A man is driving a motorbike, and he is stopped by highway bandits. After a brief, tense confrontation, he pulls out a gun and kills them, then drives away. The tone is set.
Then we encounter Dahai (Jiang Wu). He is angry because the coal mine in his town was privatized in a corrupt deal. He wants to expose the corruption, but the post office won't deliver his letter, and after he confronts the local petty oligarch, he is savagely beaten. He snaps, and the ensuing scenes aren't pretty.
Next we meet Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang). More precisely, we meet him again -- he's the motorcyclist from the prologue. He plots a violent crime, even as he celebrates his mother's birthday and talks over money matters with his brothers.
The storytelling shifts smoothly to Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao), who works as a receptionist at a brothel. Some clients want to have sex with her. She's the receptionist, she explains. One of the men beats her, and what happens next involves the fruit knife her boyfriend wasn't allowed to carry on the train.
Finally there is Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a restless young man. He flees a textile job after an accident, then goes to work at a private club, where he strikes up a flirtation with a friendly woman. But he is dismayed by what he sees at the club, and more dismay follows.
If you read about China in the news, you'll see much that you recognize. People move around the country for jobs. They work at large electronics factories that also house and clothe them. Corruption is inescapable. The train infrastructure is robust.
The overlapping stories may remind you of Nashville and Short Cuts. They may also remind you of Gomorrah, the superb, and likewise violent, Italian film. Gomorrah is about organized crime, so you'd expect a movie about it to be violent. Jia, on the other hand, is likely making a metaphorical point about China with his screen mayhem.
For the purposes of moviegoing, I don't dwell on the metaphor too much. Instead I simply marvel at this beautifully made film and its strange images, among them a cadre of sex workers who stage a quasi-military parade for leering customers. It's a delirious moment, and an upsetting one.