Jia Zhangke's brilliantly observed A Touch of Sin paints a bleak and violent picture of a contemporary China in which corruption is endemic.
The director takes four episodes, all reportedly based on real events, to highlight the predicament of those at the bottom of society. The film opens in bravura fashion with a scene that wouldn't seem out of place in a Sergio Leone Western.
A man on a motorbike riding down a remote road is stopped by thugs who try to rob him. He responds to their threats with his own extreme violence.
There are hints of a Western-style vigilante thriller about the first episode here. The tone, though, is far bleaker than that of some 1970s Charles Bronson movie. The acts of revenge and violence are as nihilistic as the exploitation that prompts them – gestures of despair rather than of defiance.
Jia's storytelling style is deceptive, combining documentary-like realist conventions with the stylisation and tendency toward melodrama found in the performances by the travelling theatre that he shows from time to time.