By Patrick Z. McGavin
As the world’s most important festival, Cannes is composed in many parts and layers. Yet one inescapable aspect, seemingly more acute with each year, is how much of the programming—thematically, formally—dovetails.
The narrative at the festival follows a fairly predictable trajectory: the festival slots its weaker titles at the start and then, slowly, starts to introduce the stronger material, probably as to not induce people to leave the festival early but also build a certain momentum leading up to the final weekend and the awards.
Two Chinese films meditate on national identity, representation and the moral and personal consequences of the society’s transformative shift from Maoism to an unbridled capitalism. A Touch of Sin, the new work by China’s greatest contemporary director, Jia Zhang-ke, is the most daunting, rigorous and stylistically impressive of any competition film shown the first week.
The director’s most impressive achievement since Still Life (2006) won the top prize at Venice, the new work is suffused with a blistering, tragic intensity and palpable anger illustrating the moral rot and social despair resulting from the country’s willful and energetic Randian obedience to new wealth.
Jia has collected four stories, each dealing with death and personal tumult, and drawn from recent fact-based incidents in China to address issues of inequality and corruption, whether the soul-crushing marginalization of the poor to the perverse and appalling greed, cynicism and avarice of the country’s new social elite. “I wanted to use these news reports to build a comprehensive portrait of life in contemporary China,” he said in the accompanying filmmaker’s notes.
The ideas and concerns are familiar from the director’s previous work (Platform, The World), but the violent sense of loss and interruption contributes to a grave and wounding tone. Jia intertwines all manner of influences, of East and West, the movie’s English title is a play on King Hu’s iconic A Touch of Zen, to the extraordinary opening chapter, which opens like a Chinese Once Upon a Time in the West and by its chilling conclusion feels like Crime and Punishment.
In the opening, set in the province of Shanxi, where Jia was born, a ruffian and agitate miner (Jiang Wu), dismissed by most of the community as a village idiot, takes extreme action in his violent protest of what he regards as the graft, corruption and self-dealing of the business and social leaders. In Chongqing, a southwestern city on the Yangtze river, an enigmatic young man (Wang Baoqiang), the same one seen at the beginning, draws on the innate power and authority conferred on him from a handgun to reverse his social marginalization. In the third piece, unfolding in Hubei, in central China, a woman (Zhao Tao), already flouting traditional values by carrying an illicit affair, strikes back at a man who arrogantly believes his wealth entitles him to unfettered sexual aggression. In the final chapter, a young man (Luo Lanshan), living on the southern coast and desperate for his own brand of social mobility, lights out from his provincial village but tragically finds just a continuation of his thwarted and circumscribed life.
This is not Intolerance; the stories never exactly interweave, but they definitely exist in relation to one another. The great Yu Lik-wai, Jia’s regular cinematographer, working in in the unusual format ratio of 1:2.4, weaves together one dazzling, immersive image after another, to the point they collate and dance in the imagination. The use of color, especially red in the first chapter, is expressive and suggestive, binding shape and color and movement.
If anything, the first two pieces are so sharp and precise and wounding in what they have to say that sustaining that was almost impossible. The third and fourth pieces are not at the same level. As an arabesque, the four parts cohere. Jia’s preoccupations remain central, but what’s different, even shocking, about the new work is the violence, but it is grounded in the film’s carefully considered psychological register.
The most eruptive change is the sudden onset of snow in the dusty landscapes of the first chapter. Jia also, I suspect, realized the need to reinvigorate his own art, and change the tone and tempo of his work and try out new ideas and modes of being. A Touch of Sin is the work of an angry man, but it has a throbbing acuity and tension. The New York distributor Kino Lorber completed a deal to acquire American theatrical rights.
Flora Lau’s Bends, a first feature that debuted in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, is also concerned with the country’s extreme social stratification. The lines of demarcation are not just about money, but also the fault lines—historic, cultural—between Hong Kong and the mainland. In the generation now passed since the handover of British control, Hong Kong cinema remains fixated on themes of cultural dislocation and assimilation, moving rather uneasily as a imperial subject shaped by exile to a now coercive body of a vast empire.
In Hong Kong cinema, especially the films of Wong Kar-wai, loneliness and impermanence are a constant, his characters often caught in the growing disconnect between what they long for and what is realistically available. Love stories that were continuously unconsummated became the director’s trademark. Flora Law is a child of the cinema of Wong—significantly, she works with his key collaborators, the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the production designer and art director William Chang Suk Ping and actress Carina Lau.
Flora Lau has made a movie slippery and ethereal, her vertiginous mise-en-scene giving shape and feeling to its dominant theme of concealment in relating the story of Anna (Carina Lau), a wealthy woman whose carefully maintained life of comfort and privilege is decimated, incrementally and then devastatingly, by her husband’s malfeasance. Lau entwines the story of Anna with that of her young chauffeur (Chen Kun).
The young man is engaged with his own form of subterfuge. He is hiding his Chinese-born wife, pregnant with their second child, in the border town of Shenzhen as he desperately tries circumvent China’s single-child policy and secure her a private facility in the expensive (and overcrowded) Hong Kong.
Flora Lau’s relative inexperience as a storyteller produces the occasional awkward moment, the too spot-on linking of the two characters, but she finds her rhythm relatively early and demonstrates a sureness of mood and feeling. Doyle’s evocative and moody imagery casts a deep hold, from the thrilling use of the subjective camera from inside the high-end Mercedes to a recurrent sense of enclosure and confinement.
A Touch of Sin reiterates a master. Bends uncovers a bright and thrilling new voice.