For his seventh fiction feature, Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke strings together a quartet of stories – all adapted from infamous real-live events – into a compelling portrait of injustice, desperation and violence in modern-day China. Each of the four tales depicts how high-level corruption, socio-economic pressures, and a suffocating atmosphere of helplessness and malaise in the world’s fastest growing economy, drive four ordinary people to commit horrific acts of violence.

A disgruntled mine worker (Jiang Wu), despairing at the corruption he sees in his town and workplace, is driven to take justice into his own hands. Meanwhile, a smalltime hoodlum (Wang Baoqiang) embarks on a rampage of robbery and murder when he comes into possession of a pistol. A sauna hostess (Zhao Tao), recently spurned by her married lover, has a violent altercation with a powerful client, while a young factory worker (Luo Lanshan) struggles to find gainful employment in a fiercely labour-intensive workplace.

While on the surface, China is booming, with newly-crowned millionaires appearing every day, the poverty gap between these new champions of business and everyone else swells exponentially. Jia is unafraid, perhaps even eager, to point the finger of blame squarely at regional, second and third-tier government officials, who squeeze their local communities, exploit their constituents, while the higher-ups turn a blind eye. It is little wonder that more than a year after winning the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, A Touch of Sin remains unreleased back home.

Jia has claimed he sees A Touch of Sin as a modern day wuxia, or classical martial arts film, despite a lack of any such action appearing on screen. While this no doubt inspired the film’s English title (a play on King Hu’s classic A Touch of Zen), rather than a direct translation, “Destiny Decides”, perhaps Jia sees his (anti)heroes as warriors fighting greater, unseen forces of evil on behalf of the common man.

Stylistically, A Touch of Sin retains Jia’s signature documentarian’s eye, allowing events to play out at a measured, deliberate pace without the accompaniment of flashy editing or a pulse-pounding soundtrack. That said, there is a definite noirish quality to the film, a fondness for flawed characters, a propensity for explosions of shocking violence, and a downtrodden acceptance that fate has dealt these people a bum hand. They act, or rather react, out of frustration, desperation, but there is little faith that their actions will achieve anything other than seal their own fates.

Standouts in the cast include Jiang Wu (younger brother of actor/director Jiang Wen), as the almost flamboyantly outraged Dahai, who snaps in most spectacular fashion after local officials refuse to explain their misdeeds. Jia’s wife and muse Zhao Tao also achieves almost femme fatale status as sauna receptionist Xiaoyu, whose wild-eyed, blade-wielding response to a drunken official’s unwanted advances proves one of the film’s most arresting visual takeaways. All told, A Touch of Sin is the most important Chinese language film of the year and absolutely essential viewing.

This review first appeared in Vérité Film Magazine May 2014