‘Touch of Sin’ examines unbridled greed in China

It is accurate to say that the four stories contained in “A Touch of Sin” are unconnected, despite a few overlapping elements. Accurate, yet not quite true.

The real connecting element here is money: who has it, who doesn’t, and what people will do to get it. It’s fascinating that a movie this caustic on the subject was made under the current Chinese regime.

The film’s a little more accessible than the previous work of the gifted director Jia Zhangke, who also made “Still Life” and “24 City.”

It certainly has a grabby beginning: a lone motorcycle rider, straight out of a Hollywood biker flick, is accosted on a lonely highway by three punks trying to rob him. He calmly shoots all three down.

The movie will return to the biker (Wang Baoqiang) in its second section, but first we pause in the town he’s passing through. Here we meet a man (Jiang Wu, a very animated actor) who’s had enough of the corruption surrounding him.

If you recall the Michael Douglas movie “Falling Down,” this is like that, but condensed into a knife-sharp 20 minutes. We see a portrait of a formerly state-run system where recent privatization has lined the pockets of a very few people, leaving our protagonist fed up.

Each story is arranged around moments of violence, which spring from a system that’s gone totally askew. In one story, a drifting teenager is chewed up by the grueling conditions of factory work (the places that allow us to have affordable smart phones and cheap T-shirts), and he temporarily lands a job as a host in a high-priced brothel for “distinguished guests.”

Another story follows a woman (Zhao Tao) who finally breaks off the affair she’s been having with a married man, only to be confronted by the man’s wised-up wife. And that’s not the worst thing in store for this beleaguered character.

“A Touch of Sin” ranges around different parts of China, where Jia Zhangke finds plenty to criticize. This movie is a downbeat picture of a booming economy that doesn’t seem to be working out too well for many of its citizens.

Its most desperate characters explode (or implode, in one case), and you wonder if Jia is making a prediction about the structure as a whole.

In one scene, a woman is repeatedly slapped across the head with a wad of money — the attacker can’t believe she refuses to sell herself. It goes on for a long time, long enough to make us squirm in our seats.

This violent image says more about a crooked system than anything in the three hours of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” another look at priorities twisted by unbridled greed.

“A Touch of Sin” 3½ stars

Different vignettes from director Jia Zhangke, who ranges across China and finds much to criticize about where the money’s going in each situation. Each tale explodes in violence at some point, as though Jia is predicting that a system this unfair can’t sustain itself in the long run. In Mandarin and Cantonese, with English subtitles.

Rating: Not rated; probably R for violence.

Showing: The Northwest Film Forum.

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