10/10/2013 05:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Popcorn Preview: Touch of Sin

Film: Touch of Sin (2013) Tian zhu ding
Cast includes: Wu Jiang (Dragon), Baoqiang Wang (Blind Shaft), Tao Zhao (Still Life)
Writer/Director: Zhangke Jia (A Touch of Sin, Still Life)
Genre: Drama (133 minutes) Chinese with subtitles

"Mister, you got money for us?" It's an extortion demand. Either Zhou San, the man on the motorcycle, pays or he won't be able to pass. It's a dismal landscape... overcast and gray. The mountain road passes under a giant half-built overpass... an abandoned project from earlier times. After shooting the three thugs, Zhou San drives on. The truck by the side of the road with overturned crates of tomatoes is the only spot of color we've seen so far. Dahai stands in the middle tossing and catching a tomato. There's yet another body on the ground surrounded by tomatoes. The little town with Chairman Mao's statue in the center is Wujinshan, aka Black Gold Mountain. Maybe coal dust from the mine explains why everything is so gray. In town, Dahai is now on one of his tirades... the boss's Audi A6 belongs to all of us he says. In a collective, they're supposed to share equally. The boss shouldn't be able to enrich himself from bribes. The other workers have heard Dahai's rants before, and they egg him on, but it's just an amusing distraction.

When the police come investigating the murder, Dahai catches the boss off guard and carries on again about the A6. "I'm going to report you." "You've picked the wrong time for a fight," he says to Dahai, adding, "You've been a looser all your life." Indeed, Dahai feels like a looser. At the post office, he can't even mail a complaint letter because the postal clerk takes issue with the address on the envelope. During the celebratory arrival of the town commissioner in his private jet, Dahai breaks free from the crowd to continue his rant about corruption. This time, his unwelcome protests are answered with a brutal beating to the head, which lands him in the hospital. When he returns, his friends now call him Mr. Golf... a reference to the beating he took... which for some reason, they find amusing. Dahai's wife wishes he weren't such a trouble maker. "Wait and see," he says. "I can be more evil."

Eventually, Zhou San takes us away from Wujinshan... as we follow another sullen and frustrated character... and another... and another. As we get farther and farther from Wujinshan, the color palette brightens a bit, and we see more artifacts of modern China. Eventually, we spend time with a young factory worker living in factory housing, called "Oasis of Property." And there's a receptionist at a sauna... she insists she's not a sex worker. And there's the sex worker, who knows life has no promise for her. That's about as bright as this film gets... with the exception of frequent blood splatters. All to often, characters are so desperate that violence seems the only response to their dehumanizing circumstances. Skilled filmmaker Zhangke Jia is obviously passionate about the erosion of traditional values in new China. The film blurs the line between realism and surrealism. It may be hard for American audiences to know what to make of the events and images, but the message comes through. As China emerges from the dark days of 5-year plans into the era of new prosperity, corruption of values is a growing concern. In fact, the individual segments are all inspired by actual events. In the film, the narratives are more symbolic than typical plot-driven stories. Eventually the journey comes full circle and we realize Dahai may be speaking for all when he says... "I can be more evil."

3 popped kernels (Scale: 0-4)
As China emerges from a dark past, not everyone finds joy in what bright, shiny new China has to offer

Popcorn Profile
Audience: Grown-ups
Distribution: Art house
Mood: Depressing
Tempo: Cruises comfortably
Visual Style: Unvarnished realism
Primary Driver: Cultural concept
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Thought provoking

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