A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding)
The blurb had promise to it as did a few comments I'd seen about it from other screenings. Films with multiple threads telling different stories and being connected through a common theme often turned out to be thought provoking and engaging.
What I hoped for didn't turn out to be what I received, as so often is the case with films that you take a chance on, but then that's what Festivals are about. They aren't about taking the safe option and going to see what everyone else is seeing, films that you already know how they are going to turn out. It's about seeing something that you never expected to see, and surprisingly more than you'd think, you find some fantastic films amongst the most unexpected viewings.
Four independent stories set in modern China about random acts of violence.
There are two things that tainted my potential enjoyment of the film and while one was most likely down to the film itself the other might well have been a projection issue so not really the fault of the production. I do wish I had gotten out of my seat to point it out early on, the problem I find is that you don't want to miss early, and often crucial, scenes of character and story progression. So I stayed and hoped that they would be resolved during the playback, especially when an usher entered, however they were more concerned in checking if any of the audience had set-up professional copying equipment to produce those nigh on perfect pirated copies flying about the internet, not if the film was playing back correctly.
Anyway, I digress, let me get back on point and away from my sarcasm and scepticism regarding film piracy. The issue that lay with the film itself was in the focussing. At first I thought this was a problem with the projection but it was only noticeable in some scenes which appeared out of focus to varying degrees. In some scenes it was really noticeable and in others just a fraction, enough for your brain to register and your eyes to begin to complain. It seemed to particularly hit during scenes where a character would be walking towards or away from the camera at some acute angle, moving through varying depths of field. In other more static scenes there was no issue with the focussing. This turned out to be quite distracting and often pushed me right out of the story and severed any connection I had with the film at the time.
The second issue was more likely an individual print or projection issue so it would most likely not befall your screening. From the beginning the sound was out of sync and remained so for the entirety of the film. Not by a great deal as it wasn't a problem during the dialogue scenes, well not for the non-Chinese speaking members of the audience, but when there were sound effects such as a gun being shot or a door being closed it became very noticeable, sound was falling behind the picture.
So already A Touch of Sin was fighting for my positive attention. Thankfully it began to capture it and for the most part I managed to forget the issues except when they became very prevalent - when a scene experiencing the focus issue remained on screen for too long or when a sudden noise caused excessive attention on the sound sync issue - and looking back I am surprised by how much it managed to capture my attention and hold it.
I say I'm surprised because overall I struggled with the film. It is billed as four independent stories of random acts of violence set in China which are disconnected from each other, and that last statement is very true. I had hoped for some form of connection that would deliver a final point for the film but there really isn't. There are some connections made in that some characters' lives have crossed the path of others from another story, but there's no cleverly woven together threads or connections which are relevant to the plots of each of the stories, or even a strong moralistic point to be had from them all. I found this both strange and a bit of a let-down because a couple of the individual stories are rather interesting and it feels like it should be saying something more.
The opening story of the paranoid worker has some attraction to it, particularly as the character does seem a little unhinged from the beginning but still manages to draw you to him. The build up to where the story explodes does feel like it's getting to the point of telling us something but it just never seems to express itself well enough. I was looking for some reason, some message about where the faults lay and what could have been done differently, but there's no clear answer, and for this story perhaps that is the point.
This first story also delivers the most violence and a couple of scenes that are rather gory delivering some big shocks for the audience. The surprise is that these scenes of violence against people and the aftermath are nothing compared to the horrendous scene of the extended whipping of the secured cart horse clearly causes it distress. While some people reacted quietly to the gore and violence against people in a couple of scenes, with the scene of the horse whipping more people were vocal and quite clearly upset, I was too, it is a very distressing and uncomfortable scene.
With the horse it doesn't look like there has been any CG or tricks used in making it, unlike all the scenes with real people who, as actors, are completely untouched by the moment. The horse is definitely affected and clearly distressed by the whipping and it seemed unnecessary and rather grotesque behaviour. For me there was no need for this scene to go as far as it did, unless of course I'm totally fooled and it was CG with an amazingly trained horse, but that I don't believe. This scene taints the entire film much more so than the issues with the sound or the focus.
That said, the first story has the most to say and the most connection with the audience because they've all felt dis-empowered and trodden over by big business and high achievers, and so they can all relate to this story. Not just that but it feels the best fleshed out in terms of character.
Another story of the boy falling for the sex worker did start to draw me into it and I really felt that this to was going somewhere. However the ultimate ending is disappointing and as pointless as the act itself, made worse by the fact that there was no sympathy for the character who always seemed to be shirking away from responsibility and life decisions.
The story of the woman working at the sauna did seem to be delving more into character and into the reasoning behind violence, but it doesn't quite go far enough and fails to offer any understanding of what the tale is telling us or true understanding of what the character's journey was. We see the journey and what has happened but it doesn't flow and connect well enough and while we know the facts of her story it lacks the emotional understanding behind it.
In the end it offered little hope for any of the characters, even with the woman in the final story who might have had more chance than the rest had her story continued. The story telling was long and rambling at times and did not seem to be getting us or the characters anywhere of worth.
Despite the problem with the focussing the film does offer some strong visual moments and the imagery throughout the film, not just with the violence, keep your eyes drawn to the film. From the views of modern China to the stylistic choices of some of the stories and the scenes, the costumes of the sex workers for example, are all very visually engaging.
A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) is a hard film to watch because it doesn't really offer the audience anything more than watching these four disconnected stories. It will illicit reaction from you during some key moments, mainly for the scenes of horse abuse but I don't think those were the right feelings to be having at the right times.
There should have been more outcome from each of the stories with some moralistic point for the audience to take from each, and there could have been more emotional investment with the characters rather than the feeling of just watching their disconnected story play out.
While there are strong points to some of the stories, with the most interesting being the disgruntled worker and the boy falling for the sex worker, they never really went far enough with the characters to get us to feel something. The disconnection was not only between the stories but between the film and the audience.
There are positives in the writing, direction and some of the acting, but never as a complete piece, and while it will illicit discussion I fear it does for the wrong reasons, particularly the whipping of the horse scene.