Hollywood may save its best movies for the holiday season, but each year's top foreign films tend to arrive in New Orleans just after the new year has begun and movie awards season is in full swing. Winner of the Best Screenplay award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, A Touch of Sin interweaves four stories drawn directly from international news reports to paint an epic portrait of life in China after 30 years of economic reform. Each story culminates in an act of extreme violence, allowing filmmaker Jia Zhangke (Still Life) to illuminate the Western-style corruption and inequality that have taken hold in his country. The film cuts so close to the bone, it has effectively been banned by the Chinese government despite a scheduled November 2013 release date in China.
Though the stories are based on true events, Zhangke fictionalizes each by imagining the personal details of his subjects to reveal the human cost of China's rise, which ranges from widespread prostitution to what amounts to indentured servitude in factories churning out goods for the West. The violence is sudden and sometimes graphic, but it is not meant to be celebrated or enjoyed in the manner of American action movies. Shot on location in the four far-flung regions of China in which the events took place, and featuring a potent mix of seasoned actors and nonprofessionals found at each location, A Touch of Sin has the unmistakable ring of truth — and a sense of urgency that positively demands our attention.