Best known for immersive and perceptive character studies like “Still Life” and “The World,” writer-director Jia Zhangke takes a hard-left turn into pulp territory with “A Touch of Sin,” a bloody, despairing gaze at the underside of China’s economic miracle. Divided into four geographically separate but thematically unified vignettes in which have-nots are pushed beyond the breaking point, the film’s blunt-force trauma serves as an angry state of the union address about all those left behind now that capitalism has come to town.
The film kicks off with a ruthless pre-credits jolt, as three highway bandits pick the wrong guy to try and rob. This kind of stylized violence is new for the filmmaker, but he takes to it with missionary zeal. The prologue sets the tone: this is a brave new world where it’s every man for himself.
The first story stars stocky, snarling Jiang Wu as Dahai, an unemployed miner who wastes his days fuming to anybody who will bother to listen about how the village boss betrayed the people by selling their town out to a slimy industrialist. Private jets and unlocked sports cars serve as pointed visual insults to folks like Dahai who can’t catch a break. When he finally lashes out in a symbolically loaded rampage, the catharsis is only momentary. Jia fixates on the futility of it all.
“A Touch of Sin’s” relentless desolation is at times almost too much to bear. As the stories move forward, the protagonists’ anger turns inward, constantly scrambling to make ends meet in a country where it seems like the only opportunities are dehumanizing go-nowhere factory jobs and China’s burgeoning sex trade.
The film’s most affecting tale is the third, starring Jia’s wife and frequent muse Xaio Yu as a massage parlor receptionist languishing in a dead-end affair with a married man. It’s a masterful little sequence in which day-to-day indignities gather mass and force like a snowball rolling downhill. The entire film is easily summed up in the image of a horny fat-cat slapping repeatedly her in the face with a stack of cash, demanding that she prostitute herself simply because he can afford it.
An epilogue attempts to tie all four stories together in a bit of an over-reach, and in an amusing coincidence the final shot will feel a bit familiar to “Wolf of Wall Street” fans. (I guess every angry screed about capitalist pigs must now end with an audience-indicting image.) “A Touch of Sin” is a grueling experience, one that feels sadly necessary.