Friday, August 2, 2013

MIFF Session 6: A TOUCH OF SIN: Assault with a Deadly Economic System

Four stories of the effects of the capitalism that has been swelling in China for the past few decades. We go from exploitation and rorting in a far flung rural district, survival in a provincial city, bloody dummy-spitting in a massage parlour to a metropolis alive with colour, entertainment, business deals and the expensive end of the sex trade, we watch individuals meet the changed game, mostly with pressured violence.

The tradition that writer/director Zhangke Jia is tapping here is wuxia, tales of ordinary folk moved by circumstance to be warriors against injustice. The stories themselves that make up the omnibus were quite literally taken from the headlines as Zhangke began collecting from the newpapers and settled on these, with liberal borrowings from others to form a picture of his country worlds away from the Bressonian observed fables he is known for. The theme here is anger, his characters and his own.

The laid-off miner in the first story repeatedly fails to protest at the corrupt coffer-filling of the village officials who profited illegally from the sale of the mine. He goes forth with a shotgun concealed in a wall hanging or, just as accurately, a weapon wrapped in a tiger. The migrant worker of the second moves through streets and cafes loud with sudden flare-ups. His actions show us what he is really about and his departure from the film amid the gunfire and crashes from the bus movie screen into darkness tell us that he has found his point of control. The third story sees a receptionist for a sauna etc establishment being taken for one of its sex workers breaking out from their hassling (one repeatedly slaps her with a wad of bank notes, drawing blood and then almighty wrath (seldom has a loaded gun moment surprised me so much). Finally an errant factory worker flees his responsibility and runs to the big city, taking a security job in a high class brothel. He meets with the revenge of others rather than enacts his own but this, too, has a strong poignancy.

The canvas here is rich but not cluttered. The first story moves like a wuxia tale but because of the modern dress more resembles a Sergio Leone revenge western. Localised outdoor performances of Chinese opera appear as a link with tradition but also a reminder of the moral code they offered. The stories are not separated by partitioning title cards or even text on the screen but rather pass batons to each other as they progress.

The result is so rich that I baulk as describing it here for fear of leaving too much out. While some passages feel like they haven't travelled well from their setting the whole is so unfailingly compelling that the two hours plus running time flew by. It's also hard to find out much about this film as its freshness from its Cannes debut has left only the sparsest of commentary or information so far. I've been mostly going on what came from the Q&A after the screening (which featured the most clodhoppingly overbaked self-important statement in the guise of a question that I've heard at any of these: thankfully, tha language barriers proved insurmountable, and that's just when it was in English).

Two hours of sustained revenge opera in sumptuous colour and mounting anger. If that doesn't work as cinema I don't know what does.

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