Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin is in some ways a harsh departure for the filmmaker, one of the reigning masters of Chinese cinema; the quiet gracefulness of his films best-known in the English-speaking world has been replaced by anger and violence, a lingering despair clinging to the movie like a bramble. But at the same time, it's business as usual for a director whose work has all explored the trauma of a swiftly-changing China caught in the gap between tradition and modernity, Maoist Communism and robber-baron capitalism. Each of its four episodes, centering around a different character in a different province, is about the sin perpetrated by a single person, as promised by the title; but is even more about the capricious, inscrutable society that turns human beings into scrambling scavengers, sketching out quickly but crisply how it is that they were driven to lash out with destructive violence.

The script was based upon four news stories Jia encountered in his perusals of The State of Modern China, and there is a certain formulaic quality to each of them that does absolutely no favors to the movie's pacing; but boy, if you wander into A Touch of Sin expecting something that's in any way easy to watch, like the wuxia-influenced thriller that the director has weirdly indicated this was meant to be, then you're screwed regardless. If it's formulaic and repetitive, that's only because it's also essentially ritualistic, and its four individual stories only build up such an excellent whole due to the sense of fatalism that pervades them - the sense of the same bad things happening over and over, seen well in advance and impossible to stop anyway.

That's not to say that Jia's script isn't a little distressingly schematic, though that comes less at the level of structure than in the somewhat arch way that each of the four chapters seems hellbent on representing a different aspect of Chinese life; there's a little strain in the way the film attempts to find a completely different psychological and economic register for each new protagonist even after having already determined that they need to be thematically linked. This is only notably problematic in the third segment, the clear "one of these things is not like the others" winner of the movie, and not just because it's the only one anchored by a woman; it's also the place where the climactic outburst of violence is presented in the most fanciful, stylised way, perhaps because it's also the only chapter in which that violence is self-evidently justified (she's lashing out at attempted rapists). Which doesn't make it bad, necessarily; it's just a little off. Sort of like how the fourth segment ends up feeling weirdly light and trivial compared to the first three - it's not "bad", either, though it's perhaps not a great finale.

At any rate, the film's clearest and most well-articulated segment is the first, in which a rural miner named Dahai (Jiang Wu) is so outraged by the imbalanced local political scene, so divorced from the egalitarian society Chinese policy supposedly encourages, that he spends all of his free time agitating for reform and punishment meted out to the guilty. When no such satisfaction comes, something snaps in his head, and he goes on a blood-soaked killing spree to weed out everyone he perceives as being unjust. That's broadly the pattern followed by the film's later stories, all of which are equally pointed and angry about some failure in China's national character (the most sublimely peculiar is in the final segment, which largely takes place in what I can only think to describe as a patriotism-themed brothel, where the hollow promise of Communism and the avarice of capitalism are free to mingle in a most leeringly symbolic way).

Dahai's story is the most direct and effective, though it's not fair to use it as a stick to beat up on A Touch of Sin, except insofar as it is also the most clearly based in genre, and thus makes promises that Jia isn't really looking to keep. This is much more a film about desperate people making bad, but defensible decisions, like spa receptionist Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao), or bad, and humanely pathetic decisions, like Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), who falls afoul of a peculiarly Kafkaesque bureaucratic rule after a workplace accident, and tries to find some way to keep himself afloat economically as a result. Or just bad, but not without reason, as in the case of Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), who opens the movie with a prologue in which he, riding a motorcycle (that most romantic icon of independent will), blankly guns down a trio of gangsters in the middle of the countryside. It's the perfect start to a film describing a moral universe in which random, even arbitrary violence is only a sane response to the implacable institutional decay and corruption that infects all of life.

The film is impeccably shot by Yu Likwai with an eye towards just this dynamic, creating a world that is obviously rotten and crumbling, yet which is also quite shockingly beautiful in every moment as well; there's a hard kind of dignity to the images of poverty in the film, which helps it to avoid exploiting its setting whatsoever. It is not realist, though it flits with a realist aesthetic at times; it's something much closer to a rough working class poetry, finding moments of beauty in all contexts and contrasting violence and grubbing with art and culture (the film is somewhat bookended by operatic performances, though I don't know if Chinese opera has anything like the snobbish cultural cachet of European opera) in a way that eliminates any distinction between them, much as the story structure collides four disparate locations and four unique protagonists in a single flow of ideas that makes them feel like part of a whole, rather than individual actors. In this way, the film considers Society-with-a-capital-S from simultaneously general and specific perspectives, and feels like Jia considers not just four stories of sin but the entire way that people exist in the world to be the real subject of his movie.

It's daunting, and more ambitious than any one film could maybe survive - the seams show, and it's hard not to wonder if the energy is slowly evacuating the movie, particularly in the fourth story. But even as a flawed, maybe over-complex movie, A Touch of Sin is gloriously messy and humane, a passionate exploration of humanity that bends cinematic conventions and tones back and forth with energetic willfulness. It is a film that could only be made by a fearless director fully aware of his powers, and unafraid to grapple with ideas that might break him. It is emphatic, alive cinema.