Jiang Wu in A Touch of Sin

  • Jiang Wu in A Touch of Sin

I showed up to the Music Box Theatre’s late Saturday afternoon screening of A Touch of Sin a few minutes after the previews had started. The theater was nearly full, so I took a seat in the front row to avoid stepping over anyone. Sitting close to the screen proved a benefit—I doubt I would have been so affected by the movie’s violence if it weren’t right in my face. One image that keeps returning to me is that of a fresh murder victim felled by multiple shotgun blasts, the smoke rising up off his bullet wounds and making his corpse resemble a volcanic surface. It shouldn’t be beautiful, yet director Jia Zhang-ke holds the shot till the smoke transcends any narrative function and exists solely as an image. It’s a serene moment—and so unexpected after the shock of seeing someone killed. Jia inspires here uneasy sympathy with the murderer in his moment of catharsis. The immediate result of his crime is that the world around him—which until now had been so oppressive—seems less significant than a few wisps of smoke.

To achieve this subjective effect, most filmmakers would cut to a close-up of the smoke. Think of that famous shot in Taxi Driver of an Alka-Seltzer tablet dissolving in a glass of water, which is meant to convey Travis Bickle’s alienation from the people around him. Yet Jia presents the detail as part of a tableau, counting on viewers to recognize how it stands out from the rest of the image (and, indeed, the greater world of the film). I had an advantage over other spectators in reaching this conclusion—from where I sat, everything in A Touch of Sin was a close-up.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.