A critical smash with an impressive 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, A Touch of Sin is a Chinese portmanteau film about four individuals connected by their imminent acts of violence.
The risk with this kind of short-story cinema is that the quality is likely to vary from piece to piece, making it easy to end up with a dud section. In the case of A Touch of Sin, they’re pretty much all dud sections. Stilted performances and impenetrable characters make it difficult to connect with the nicely poised drama, making the first and second stories feel disappointingly flat.
It picks up at section three, the story of a receptionist (Tao Zhao) whose lover refuses to leave his wife. Here the film’s social commentary takes on a welcome genre twist and finally grabs some attention. But then comes the last section and its back to the same dispensable flatness.
Thematically we’re on solid ground, as writer/director Zhangke Jia paints a strong picture of modern China as a volatile landscape, plagued by violence, misogyny and inequality. Dramatically, however, the film struggles to find inspiration.
A Touch of Sin is over two hours long, but still fails to flesh out its characters or even complete its stories. There’s only one good strand in the entire piece, so a 90-minute movie about the receptionist would have been much better. But it’s a Chinese film about politics, no wonder the critics love it.