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First look: A Chinese art-house director goes for blood

CANNES, France – Biggest, grimmest, most visually impressive and most ambitious of the 2013 Cannes competition films to screen so far, Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” tells four interlinked stories that add up to a sweeping condemnation of the corruption and amorality beneath China’s economic miracle. Jia is a longtime film-festival fave-rave, known for slow-moving, documentary-style and nearly plotless dramas focused on real life and shot in construction zones, factories, godforsaken rural villages and other places where ordinary people scrape out a living.

“A Touch of Sin” both is and is not like Jia’s other films, which include “Still Life,” “The World” and “Unknown Pleasures,” along with several documentaries. Locations for these four allegorical tales are similarly downscale, ranging from brothels to bus and train stations to beaten-down peasants’ households to a dormitory for industrial workers. And then there’s all the killing. It would be a mistake to advertise this as an action movie – although some American distributor probably will – because it sets up false expectations. But Jia has evidently decided he’s done with subtlety and wants to move to a starker level of metaphor. Drawing on several different spectacular true-crime stories – a relatively new phenomenon in China – he delivers an art-house film with the body count of a “Die Hard” sequel.

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