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As 2013 drew to a close, director Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin found its way onto a variety of 10-best lists. I didn’t include it on mine, but I certainly understand why others did. A Touch of Sin is courageous and unsparing in its view of life in contemporary China.

Jia divides A Touch of Sin into four loosely related stories, each derived from a real incident.

One man stages a personal revolt against bureaucracy
One man stages a personal revolt against bureaucracy

In the first episode, a man named Dahai (Jiang Wu) stages a personal revolt against a village bureaucracy that has stolen profits that should have belonged to the collective. In his old army coat, Dahai seems to represent the bitter dissatisfactions of those who feel betrayed by China’s tilt toward unchecked capitalistic greed.

The second story focuses on Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), a young man who arrives in Chongqing, a “modernized” city in the Three Gorges region. Zhou’s interest in guns would be right at home in a lot of American movies.

In the movie’s third section, we meet Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao), a young woman who’s having an affair with a married man and whose frustrations turn violent when another man mistakes her for a prostitute.

Jia’s final section introduces us to Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a young man who flees the factory economy in vain hope of finding a better life. We may think of China as an unstoppable power with a growing economy, but Xia’s story makes it clear that a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some even drown.

Although each story has a resolution, the movie’s impact is one of cumulative realization as Jia takes us into a world in which prostitutes entertain visitors at a luxury hotel, in which violence never seems far from the surface and in which the feeling is one of disdain for the new capitalism that makes a mockery out of the old bromides.

Don’t misread A Touch of Sin as an expression of longing for the restricted days of Maoism, but as a powerful lament for a society that’s leaping forward in ways that leave some choking on the dust of others’ so-called “progress.”