As Tony Rayns and Edward Wong explain (in Film Comment and the New York Times, respectively), Jia Zhangke had originally intended to film a big-budget martial arts epic when the stories he was hearing via the hugely popular Chinese microblogging platform Weibo compelled him to make substantial changes to the screenplay he’d sent in to the Film Bureau for pre-production approval. Instead of tracking historical dynasties, A Touch of Sin, which won the best screenplay award in Cannes, tells, in the words of the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, “four lightly but ingeniously interconnected stories concern working people who endure the unchecked arrogance of new plutocrats in pop-up cities—and whose sole recourse in the face of official indifference and collusion is horrific violence. Jia borrows the gory conventions of action movies and channels the spirit of Dostoyevsky into a documentary-like vision of China’s insulted and injured.”
Nicolas Rapold at the L: “The stories, dotted with incidental portraiture, span China and present a moral panorama: the distraught Shanxi villager grilling and blasting away corrupt officials; the cold-eyed killer from the opening; the massage-parlor greeter who slashes a cash-wad-wielding customer; and, as crucial counterpoint to these convulsive outbursts, the heartbreaking pop-star-fresh factory worker turned pleasure-palace attendant turned no-hoper.” Overall, A Touch of Sin, “in its wonders and horrors and social upheaval, especially evokes some 19th-century tour of weird, new America in the throes of rapacious expansion.”
“Some dislike Jia’s occasional forays into ‘unreality,’ which he engaged in rather aggressively in The World  and in the final ‘science-fiction’ moments of Still Life , preferring instead his more direct confrontations with social reality in films as various as Xiao Wu , Useless , 24 City (2008) or I Wish I Knew (2010).” Robert Koehler for Cinema Scope: “But A Touch of Sin, rather than auguring a new, ‘angrier’ Jia, suggests an adventurous new strategy of melding the Mainland China of the news—such as the wave of ultra-luxe hotels and resorts catering to (especially) wealthy men seen in the fourth episode—to a heightened theatricality veering toward satire…. If Jia has a comedy in him, A Touch of Sin may be its precursor.”
Back to Tony Rayns: “The early films were rooted in a kind of stylized realism (his ‘teachers’ were Robert Bresson and Hou Hsiao-hsien), but since The World, Jia’s film language has evolved into something wondrous and sublime. He’s not interested in any line between fiction and documentary, but spikes both with moments of surreal fantasy… At the same time, his style has become more Ophülsian: cuts and camera movements are often precisely synchronized with music and dialogue to create a stream of small cinematic epiphanies. This reminds us that Jia has always wanted to make a musical; he’s come closest in Platform , but many of the characters in other films are defined by their singing or refusing to sing. It also reminds us that Jia is the most cinéphile of all Chinese directors. From its English title onwards, A Touch of Sin is laced with homages to King Hu and other classical wuxia directors.”
“It has become something of a trend, of late, for esteemed arthouse filmmakers to go slumming with conspicuously (and sometimes dubiously) accessibly genre fare,” writes Calum Marsh at Film.com, “be it Kelly Reichardt’s heist-picture deconstruction in Night Moves, Wong Kar-wai’s foray into kung-fu watercolors with The Grandmaster, or even Xavier Dolan’s take on erotic thriller with his queer-inflected Tom at the Farm. The danger here is always one of tacit elitism: too much self-consciousness in the approach reeks of superiority, as if the pleasures of the genre were beneath the filmmaker’s higher aspirations. Part of what’s so invigorating about A Touch of Sin is its refusal to betray the depth of its intellectual ambition, deferring when needed to generic convention and relishing the entertainment which follows. Though Jia is clearly a formidable thinker, he never operates from a perceived remove, never regarding the style or form of the material as if it were somehow cheap or frivolous. He meets the action movie on its level and thus delivers an exceptional one.”
“The bloodshed (gory shootings, knives wielded with wuxia-flavored fervor) may seem gratuitous in the moment, but it accumulates in power and incisiveness,” finds Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. More from Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker and, at the Film Experience, Glenn Dunks and Jose Solís.
Updates: Aliza Ma for Reverse Shot: “From these four narratives emerge themes of social, spiritual, sexual and what Jia calls ‘invisible’ forms of violence, which ultimately materialize in the individual, and are compounded by such factors as family, the public sphere, industry. In preparing for the shoot with his actors, Jia believed it vital to have each travel to the exact location where the event took place. Although they were not always locations where the film was ultimately shot, it was important to track the paths of migration treaded by each tragic figure. To see where they slept, what they ate, adopt their regional dialects, and the details of their surroundings helped construct the missing parts of the picture; this way, in lieu of an apt language to describe these violent ruptures, the actors’ bodies become the means of communication in the image—to make violence visceral and, by extension, make invisible forces that create violence visible.”
For Carson Lund, writing at In Review Online, A Touch of Sin is “an engrossing and uncharacteristically virtuosic feat of cinematic energy that points in a new direction for Jia while retaining his core principles. Confusion regarding the shifting tides of a modernizing Chinese society—a Jia trademark—has hardened here into outright fury towards the corruption built into a country so damaged by the evil sides of capitalism.”
“A perplexing, at times breathtaking film,” finds Bilge Ebiri at Vulture.
Updates, 9/28: Nelson Kim at Hammer to Nail: “Jia is revisiting his usual themes—rootlessness, alienation, the human costs of breakneck social and economic change—and stylistic tropes: wide-open frames, meditatively paced long takes, a restrained realism interrupted by bursts of fantasy and surrealism. But he’s never made a movie where blood and death flow this freely…. Some longtime admirers may view A Touch of Sin as uncharacteristically blunt or vulgar in its reliance on tabloid-y source material and action-movie/thriller tropes, but it strikes me as a logical outgrowth of Jia’s earlier work.”
“In the filmmaker’s China,” writes Chris Cabin in Slant, “one can find work and money but only through rootlessness and ruthlessness, and the violence that erupts throughout A Touch of Sin works as a return of the repressed. Indeed, though indebted to wuxia and opera, Jia’s latest is as much horror film as it is an exacting actioner. Jia’s four lost souls, however, have only arisen through rampant degradation, carelessness, and corruptive greed, leaving them caught in either vengeful madness or total disassociation. In effect, Jia has blurred the line between Dr. Frankenstein and the creation his ego and ambition created, but his empathy clearly aligns with the mistreated ‘monsters.'”
Peter Labuza and Carson Lund discuss A Touch of Sin in the newest Cinephiliacs podcast.
Updates, 10/6: The first thing to note in this overdue update is that ChinaFile has hosted a roundtable table discussion addressing several questions the film raises. Jonathan Landreth, who opens the proceedings, wonders, for example, “if Jia left out the capture, trial and punishment of the killers in the film because a frank portrayal of China’s criminal justice system is still too sensitive for the censors?” And will A Touch of Sin see a release on the mainland at all? Jia says he’s shooting for next month.
Also at ChinaFile, you can watch an onstage Q&A with Jia and Zhao Tao. Relatedly, photographer Robin Holland has shot some terrific portraits of both. More interviews with Jia: Dustin Chang (Twitch), Darren Hughes (Notebook), Mekado Murphy (New York Times), Nicolas Rapold (Film Comment), and Vadim Rizov (Filmmaker).
“A Touch of Sin builds with implacable tension and urgency,” writes Manohla Dargis in the NYT. “Mr. Jia has long blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction through his use of digital cinematography, which helps convey a sense of documentarylike immediacy, and through real locations and nonprofessional performers working alongside trained actors. In his movies, characters feel as if they live in a world that’s so rapidly changing, so unsettled and destabilizing, that it seems the very ground under them is collapsing along with innumerable social, political and aesthetic frameworks.”
“A Touch of Sin is Jia’s most conventional movie and hence, in a way, his most obvious representation of China as a Hobbesian industrial behemoth,” writes J. Hoberman at Artinfo.
“All four stories end desperately, although the coda arguably gives one main player a shot at a better future,” notes Jonathan Romney, writing for Film Comment. “Jia may paint a grim picture of a corrupt, soul-crushing society, but his satirical mischief makes for a redeeming thrust. A Touch of Sin no more offers a prescription for a better China—and why should it?—than Taxi Driver could be said to set out a workable proposal for urban renewal in mid-70s Manhattan. But it’s a bracing and unexpected offering from a director we thought we knew.”
Updates, 10/14: “The Fifth Generation of Mainland Chinese filmmakers who emerged in the 1980s, such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, began their careers as rebellious independents, but have settled for roles as state-approved makers of harmless epic period pieces like Zhang’s The Flowers of War,” writes Robert Koehler at arts•meme. “The Sixth Generation who followed, led by Jia Zhangke, are generally far more cantankerous, and greater artists.” Jia’s oeuvre is “as sublime a string of movies as any filmmaker now under 50 years old has given us.”
“Not since Unknown Pleasures has Jia made a film so immediate,” writes Patrick Z. McGavin of A Touch of Sin. Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times: “Jia’s visualization of the main stories as modern-day wuxia has led him to add pulpier, less subtle elements to his usual elegant visual style, as well as copious amounts of shed blood. Because this is not business as usual for him as a filmmaker, he is not at ease or at his best in these moments, but there is a way that awkwardness works to the film’s advantage.”
Update, 10/19: Edward Wong talks with Jia for the NYT.
Update, 10/26: For Ian Johnson, writing for the New York Review of Books, “it’s hard not to see A Touch of Sin as one of the best Chinese films in recent years. It weaves in classical opera, rediscovered religious traditions, and the anomie of the migrant condition lived by millions of Chinese, even for those who can afford China’s new high-speed rail system, in which people seem to glide from one reality to the next in sequences of almost magical-realist beauty.”
Update, 11/5: Zhou Xin talks with Jia for the Brooklyn Rail.
Update, 11/20: “I can’t imagine a comparable American movie, militating passionately, lyrically over on the economic inequities of American life,” writes Ray Pride at Newcity Film. “It just isn’t done.”
Update, 11/22: “Jia may be a master of the big picture,” writes J.R. Jones in the Chicago Reader, “but what gets under your skin in A Touch of Sin is the solitary suffering of individuals, punished to the point where they can’t take anymore.”
Update, 12/6: In the New Republic, Christopher Beam recalls a few incidents of heartless violence in contemporary Beijing and adds, “Everyone in China has stories like this.” As for A Touch of Sin: “Only once, toward the end of the film, does one character show mercy toward another—and tragedy still ensues. A Touch of Sin describes a world in which no good deed goes unexploited, so good deeds are few…. Critics argue that for all the movie’s negativity, it goes easy on the country’s highest powers. The villains are all rotten individuals: local officials, corrupt businessmen, highway robbers…. But this read doesn’t give Jia enough credit. It’s clear from the film that evil deeds stem at least in part from a crushing system.” What’s more: “The irony of suppressing A Touch of Sin, of course, is that the movie is about the unintended consequences of suppression.”