Wednesday, January 12, 2022

My Favorite Films of 2021

 

Petite Maman

The focus of this blog has always been on coverage of DVD and Blu-ray titles. It's right there in the name of the site. A few years ago my supply of screeners, once a raging torrent that flooded my mailbox each month, slowed to a trickle, and now appears to have shut off completely, a rough match for the trajectory of DVD sales over the past decade. I believe physical media is as important as ever – who wants to be dependent on the vicissitudes of the array of mercurial streaming channels we've all cobbled together to form our personal archives – but I can't escape the fact that it's mighty difficult to review releases that I don't have.

Do I now have to resort to reviewing new theatrical releases? What a depressing thought. Not that there aren't worthwhile films produced every year, but I've always been mildly embarrassed that the bulk of film criticism ignores 125 years of film history to focus on whatever happens to be in a theater (or its streaming proxy) this month. Just imagine only reading new books. Bo-ring!

Anyway, speaking of those worthwhile films released every year, it's time to talk about my favorite movies of 2021. As always, I'm sure I've missed seeing plenty of quality contenders: Tsai Ming-Liang's “Days,” Ryusuke Hamaguchi's “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” Joanna Hogg's “The Souvenir, Part II” and more.

My Top 10 of 2021:

Petite Maman (Sciamma)

Pig (Sarnoski)

Spider-Man: No Way Home (Watts)

Summer of Soul (Questlove)

Memoria (Apichatpong)

The Tragedy of Macbeth (J Coen)

Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn (Jude)

The Card Counter (Schrader)

Passing (Hall)

Flee (Rasmussen)

And Six More That I Liked A Lot:

The Worst Person in the World (Trier)

Annette(Carax)

About Endlessness (Andersson)

Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (Cretton)

Nightmare Alley (Del Toro)

Bergman Island (Hansen-Love)

If you don't count the end credits, Celine Sciamma's “Petite Maman” clocks in under 70 minutes, but that's not the only reason this little gem is one of the year's best movies. Eight-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) has just had to say goodbye to her beloved maternal grandmother. While grieving, Nelly helps to clean out the old family home and meets a very special new friend. The film spends almost all of its compact running time following young Nelly closely, relishing in the opportunity to show little girls at play, and providing a fresh, intimate perspective on the mother-daughter relationship. The film subtly and methodically builds up to an ending that's both surprising and deeply affecting. I'm still thinking about it a month later.

“Pig” has been creatively marketed as “John Wick, but with Nicolas Cage and a pig” which sounds freaking awesome and also promises some bonkers thrills. Cage plays Rob, a bearded recluse holed up in a shack in the woods with only his truffle-hunting pig for companionship. When his best friend is pignapped, Cage reluctantly treks back to the seedy urban jungle (Portland, OR to be precise) for either rescue or revenge. As you watch Cage get beaten half to death in one of those infamous underground fight clubs run exclusively by off-duty restaurant workers, you're expecting the gonzo fury to fully erupt, but screenwriter/director Michael Sarnoski provides the biggest shock by steering the film in a much more serene, contemplative direction. “Pig” winds up being a surprisingly moving portrait of grief and an impassioned testament to the value of artistic integrity in an increasingly homogenized commercial world. Cook what you want to cook – your very soul may depend on it.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is packed to the gills with shameless fan service and constructed by an established crowd-pleasing formula, but just as the Egg McMuffin is designed in the lab to be the tastiest damn sandwich in the world, this new MCU entry sure goes down smooth. I think what I love best about this goofy plot is that all of its multiverse-spanning mayhem stems entirely from the fact that Peter Parker just can't shut the hell up for a minute. Talk about respect for the source material! From the instant I first saw Tom Holland in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), I thought he fully embodied the Peter Parker of the comic book pages, and he still owns the role, even while sharing the screen with his worthy predecessors. This movie is pure Marvel joy from start to finish. After a bit of a lull, the MCU finished the year very strong with both “No Way Home” and the immensely entertaining “Hawkeye” series.

Speaking of pure joy from start to finish, “Summer of Soul,” Questlove's jawn/documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, is an absolute blast. Held over six weeks in the summer, the “Black Woodstock” featured an all-universe lineup, ranging from newcomers like a teenager named Stevie Wonder to veteran stars like Mahalia Jackson, with Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, and Nina Simone sprinkled in just to keep everyone entertained. I admit that I knew nothing about this concert and I suspect the same will be true for many viewers, which is one of the primary reasons Questlove decided to edit together this long-unseen footage into the most electrifying music documentary to come along in years.

In Apichatpong Weerasethakul's “Memoria,” Jessica (Tilda Swinton) hunts down a sound that has been haunting her (waking?) dreams. It's a bounce, a thump, kind of earthy. Are we even hearing the same noise Jessica does? When an audio technician who helps her pinpoint the elusive sound suddenly disappears, “Memoria” begins to feel like a detective story or perhaps psychological horror, and it might be both of those things, but to pigeonhole it as anything other than “the new film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul” seems inadequate. As with the Thai master's earlier films, perhaps it's best to just immerse yourself in the sensory experience, turn off your cognitive filters, and just dream along with it.

The Scottish Film

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is easily the most visually seductive film I saw this year, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel deserves to win every award for his black-and-white photography that somehow looks both sleek and archaic at the same time. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand deserve all the praise they've received for this primal scream of a staging, but I have to give a shout out to Kathryn Hunter for bringing an intense physicality to the Weird Sisters that I've never seen in any other adaptation of the Scottish Play.

Romanian director Radu Jude's “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” may be the first great feature film set in the pandemic year(s). Emi (Katia Pascariu) wanders through a Bucharest populated by people wearing masks, face shields, animal costumes, and billowing cloaks of incoherent rage. But lest you think the film suggests a year-plus of lockdown has made everyone crazy, it ticks off a methodical checklist of historical lunacy proving that the crazy has always been there, just bubbling to the surface now in a different form. For a film that starts with a four-minute hardcore sex tape, “Bad Luck” covers a dizzying range of subjects with a radical flair that makes it feel like a forgotten film of the late '60s. It must have been part of some kind of New Wave, right? Its final act also demonstrates how exhausting it must be to be a rational, educated person calmly making an informed argument in an environment where the most meticulously researched facts can be dismissed by someone blowing you a raspberry and calling you a bitch. I also appreciate that Jude chose a title guaranteeing that the film will only be seen by film critics and other perverts.

I still don't understand what card counting has to do with playing poker, but that's no hindrance to appreciating Paul Schrader's latest take on God's Lonely Man by way of Robert Bresson. In “The Card Counter,” Oscar Isaac (delivering one of the best lead performances of the year) plays a man recently released from military prison, though not released from his blighted past. While atoning for his sins (to be identified later), he scrapes together a peripatetic living as a low-stakes gambler, content to bet small and stay off everyone's radar – maybe even God's? Backed by an investor (Tiffany Haddish, in a sparkling supporting turn), he's willing to play for higher stakes in order to save the soul of a very angry young man (Tye Sheridan) he meets on the road. Anyone familiar with Schrader's work can call out the Bresson influences along the way (we start with “A Man Escaped,” yep that's “Diary of a Country Priest” right there, and you better believe we're gonna end with “Pickpocket”) but Schrader has long since synthesized the Bressonian sensibility into his own purified vision. As a follow up to the indelible “First Reformed” (2017), this film is clear evidence that Schrader is doing the very best work of his career right now.

Rebecca Hall's adaptation of Nella Larsen's novel “Passing” is so assured and focused it's hard to believe it's her directorial debut. Hall also adapted the screenplay which doesn't waste a scene, hurtling forward through a series of itnense moments in the developing friendship/rivalry between Claire (Ruth Negga), a light-skinned black woman passing as white in prohibition-era New York, and her old high-school friend Irene (Tessa Thompson). The slight resentments and affections each feels toward the other propel the narrative to its powerful and seemingly inevitable conclusion, all bolstered by luminous black-and-white cinematography by Eduard Grau. Thompson and Negga are both sensational.

“Flee” is simultaneously one of the best animated films of the year as well and one of the best documentaries. Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells the story of his friend Amin (name and animated likeness changed to protect his identity), an Afghan refugee who immigrated to Copenhagen as a teenager. Amin's harrowing refugee tale is paired with his story of coming-of-age in Kabul while realizing he is homosexual, a journey that quite charmingly involves an obsession with the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme, The Muscles from Brussels. Amin's voice is the star and organizing principle of this riveting story.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Love & Basketball

 


LOVE & BASKETBALL (Prince-Bythewood, 2000)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 21, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

Battle-tested by the age of 11, Monica Wright (Kyla Pratt) already understands that she's going to have to prove herself over and over again. After her family moves into an affluent black neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1981, she must earn her right to play on the basketball court with the boys. One cocky youngster barely has time to scoff that “Girls can't play no ball” before she's driving to the hoop. Her game impresses young Quincy McCall (Glenndon Chatman), no mean feat since Quincy has high standards: his dad Zeke (Dennis Haysbert) plays in the NBA. For the Clippers, mind you, but that still technically counts as the NBA.

Quincy decides Monica should be his girl, an “honor” she grudgingly accepts with a kiss, then promptly rejects once she realizes Quincy now expects to be the boss of her. Monica has no intention of taking orders, or guff, or crap of any kind from anyone, something Quincy discovers once she jumps him and wrestles him on the lawn. It's tough to like Quincy's chances in this match.

This childhood interlude is the muddy, grass-stained launching pad for a lifelong romance, one told with conviction and panache by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood in “Love & Basketball” (2000). The film, divided by title cards into four quarters, leaps ahead to the second quarter, circa 1988, when both Monica (now played by Sanaa Latham) and Quincy (Omar Epps) are high-school basketball stars. Quincy is the golden child, a pedigreed star guaranteed his choice of any college program. Monica, as always, has to fight much harder for everything she wants, playing her heart out for the tenuous hope of being recruited.

Dating is a nuisance she hardly has time for- gotta work on her outside game - but the spring dance is coming up, and she feels pressured to go, partly by her devoted mother (Alfre Woodard), who wants to see her tomboy daughter dressed to the nines, and partly because Quincy will be there. They're just friends who happen to live next door and share a love of basketball – honestly, they're just friends, but still, she wants to check in with him on the school's big night.

“Love & Basketball” has become a fan favorite since its release just over 20 years ago, and I suspect admirers fall in love with it at the same point Monica and Quincy officially declare their love. Prince-Bythewood's script deftly balances authenticity with the occasional fairy tale flourish that puts the romance over the top. Perhaps her savviest decision is to have Monica's and Quincy's bedrooms facing each other. Any time Quincy needs to escape from hearing his parents argue, he can just climb out onto the thin hill of grass that separates their rooms, knock on Monica's window, and have a safe refuge for the night. After they've both returned home on the night of the dance, their respective dates long since dispatched, they meet on the lawn and fall into each other's arms, a lifetime of yearning finally boiling over.

It's a beautiful moment, but college, with its whole new set of challenges, awaits in the third quarter. They both play at UCLA where they are now officially girlfriend and boyfriend. Repeating a pattern, the much-ballyhooed Quincy weighs leaving school early for the promise of being a lottery pick, while Monica scraps just for a chance to get on the court and showcase her mad skills. On first consideration, I felt the film took a wrong turn here, as the sweet, loving Quincy abruptly turns mean and selfish, but now I think Prince-Bythewood, herself a gifted high-school basketball player, understands well the difference in entitlement between male and female college athletes. Praised his whole life, Quincy expects the support of everyone on his predetermined path to fame and fortune. So when Monica makes even one modest decision to pursue her career (observing team curfew) instead of consoling Quincy when he feels down, he turns on her, placing their entire future in jeopardy. He's not accustomed to adversity and responds petulantly to even the slightest setback.

Monica truly loves Quincy, but she won't abandon her career plans for him, the way she feels her mother did to support her father, a successful banker. “Love & Basketball” would be a far lesser film if Monica ever lost focus on her own goals, and her commitment only makes their relationship, as well as Monica's ultimate on-court fate, feel all the more fully-earned.

“All's fair in love and basketball,” says Quincy. And all feels true in Prince-Bythewood's “Love & Basketball”, even its happily-ever-after ending.



Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer, supervised by director Gina Prince-Bythewood, was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35 mm original camera negative...” This 1080p transfer is pristine, another top notch Criterion release.

Audio:

The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio track is sharp and robust with strong depth throughout. The score by Terence Blanchard as well as the film's pop songs also sound great with this mix. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:

The film is accompanied by two older commentary tracks. The two options are a track by Prince-Bythewood and Sanaa Lathan, recorded in 2000, and another track by Prince-Bythewood, editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, and composer Terence Blanchard, also recorded in 2000.

The “Making Of...” feature (2021, 38 min.) involves several cast and crew members, including Prince-Bythewood, Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, and Alfre Woodard. Prince-Bythewood speaks about her own experience as a high-school basketball player as well as her early career as a writer on “A Different World” and other shows.

In another interview (2021, 16 min.), editor Terilyn A. Shropshire discusses her work on the film, and how she came to join the project via a recommendation from Spike Lee (who is also a co-producer on the film).

Criterion has also included a short feature (2021, 22 min.) which consists of a Zoom meeting between Prince-Bythewood, WNBA Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes, and writer-actress-producer Lena Waithe. The three women discuss how they've pursued success in their various careers, as Monica does in “Love & Basketball.”

The disc also includes Deleted Scenes (8 min.) and Audition tapes (9 min.), of both the adult actors and child actors who portrayed Monica and Quincy.

Criterion continues to stack the disk with two of Prince-Bythewood's short films. “Stitches” (1991, 31 min.) was her thesis film at UCLA Film School and tells the story of a troubled female stand-up comedienne. “Progress” (1997, 3 min.) is a very short film that juxtaposes Klan violence in the 1960s with gang violence in the 1990s.

The final extra on the disc is a Trailer (2 min.)

Final Thoughts:

Prince-Bythewood recently scored a Netflix hit with “The Old Guard” (2020), but her debut feature “Love & Basketball” has been winning hearts for over 20 years. Criterion has given the film a proper treatment with a great high-def transfer and a strong collection of extras.


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Throw Down

 


THROW DOWN (To, 2004)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 21, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

At first blush, Johnnie To's “Throw Down” (2004) appears to be the rare martial-arts movie in which nothing much is at stake. Cocky young Tony (Aaron Kwok) challenges the best judo fighters in Hong Kong not to seek revenge for a past slight or to restore honor to his family name. Nobody will live or die based on the outcome of these bouts; heck, there isn't even a cheap tin trophy cup on the line. Tony just wants to fight because it's fun, and the big goofy grin on his face when he has the chance to spar against a worthy opponent speaks of the sheer kinetic thrill of the moment, the rare opportunity to test your skills and feel alive, the chance to really just, well, throw down.

Tony particularly craves a match with Szeto Bo (Louis Koo), a celebrated former judo champion turned karaoke bar manager. Szeto, however, is mostly in grappling with his next glass of whiskey or pulling of his next scam, as he sinks deeper into depression every day. Tony tries to bolster Szeto's spirits (he needs him in peak fighting shape, after all) and is joined in the endeavor by the high-spirited Mona (Cherry Ying), an aspiring singer/actress eager for a life free of a manager who'd rather be her pimp. Szeto resists with a masochistic stubbornness familiar to anyone who has wallowed in their own misery for years, but Tony, Mona, and several supporting characters refuse to give up. Soon it becomes apparent that the stakes in “Thrown Down” are actually quite high - nothing less than the redemption of a lost soul.

To hurtles into each scene as if it's the only moment that ever existed, sometimes with disorienting results. Shortly after they all meet, Szeto leads Tony and Mona to an arcade where, for some reason, he insists that Tony play a Mortal Kombat-style game, something the young man does with his usual ferocity, attracting attention from the other gamers. The whole sequence then abruptly shifts into a heist, one that hasn't so much as been hinted at before, but Szeto knows his plan and the audience can just catch on at their own pace. Character introductions are handled with efficiency as well. We meet Mona as she blissfully slurps a bowl of noodles while being harangued by the furious landlady who has just evicted her, instantly establishing both her predicament and her personality with no wasted set-up.

The film also provides no obvious clues as to why Szeto is so depressed, until a sudden late revelation, and by then it hardly matters. OK, it matters quite a bit, but of far greater significance is the devotion of so many of Szeto's friends (some old, some new, all equally supportive) to his rehabilitation. Even the mobster Szeto rips off at the arcade wants to help and, oh by the way, he wants to fight too. Almost everybody in the movie is crazy about judo, a bit of a joke by the filmmakers since judo isn't particularly popular in Hong Kong.

While “Thrown Down” features several rousing judo fights, both one-on-one matches and chaotic mass street rumbles, its central appeal rests on its emphasis on the healing power of friendship. A charming sequence in which the three main characters join forces to rescue a red balloon trapped in a tree, only to immediately release it to the heavens, captures the true essence of this sweet and idiosyncratic film, a genre mashup both melancholic and life-affirming.

A relative lack of exposition (relative to Hollywood narrative, at least) may make “Throw Down” occasionally frustrating for viewers who always want to know why characters are doing what they're doing. But once you realize you can trust the filmmakers to be sincere, true both to the characters and to the audience, you can just relax and live in the moment, like the film does.


Video:

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio from a “new 4K digital transfer.” The 1080p transfer is sharp with deep, rich colors. No noticeable issues with another top-flight Criterion transfer.

Audio:

The DTS-HD Master 5.1 surround track is clean and efficient, and sounds great even in some of the messy crowd/fight scenes. Optional English subtitles support the Cantonese dialogue.

Extras:

Criterion has includes several features for this release, some older and some made just for this release.

The collection starts with a 2004 interview (40 min.) with Johnnie To, in which he discusses the genesis and development of “Throw Down.” The disc also includes a 2004 “Making Of” featurette (11 min.) which is mostly a promotional film that doesn't offer too much insight.

The new features consist of four interviews conducted by Criterion. First up is screenwriter Yau Nai-Hoi who talks about how the script was originally a light comedy which To wanted to develop into something more nuanced. He also speaks about To's propensity to improvise on set. Composer Peter Kam (11 min.) credits To with a natural musical rhythm in his pacing of scenes, while echoing Yau's comments about To's preference for making changes on set.

Criterion has also invited two film scholars to contribute. David Bordwell (21 min.) speaks about some of the differences in the film's narrative and editing vs. more standard Hollywood approaches. Caroline Guo (12 min.) discusses how atypical “Throw Down” both in terms of genre conventions and compared to most of To's other work.

The extras wrap up with a Trailer (2 ½ minutes).

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Sean Gilman, who discusses both the film and To's prolific output in the late '90s and early 2000s.

Final Thoughts:

Johnnie To also styles “Thrown Down” as an overt homage to Akira Kurosawawa, particularly his early judo film “Sanshiro Sugata” (1943). This only adds to the film's upbeat message. “Throw Down” is ultimately a great hang-out movie, with unlikely friends finding pleasure in each other's company, just chilling and helping each other out. Who wouldn't want to throw down with that?


Monday, September 13, 2021

A Touch Of Sin

Dahai (Jiang Wu) gets even
A TOUCH OF SIN (Jia, 2013)
Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, Release Date April 8, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

It's both exciting and confusing when a filmmaker appears to make a decisive break with his previous work, complicating the picture for critics who thought they had him conveniently pigeonholed. Jim Jarmusch caused plenty of consternation with the release of his revisionist Western “Dead Man” (1996). While he certainly laced his entry in the quintessential American genre with his trademark deadpan humor, the easy-going satirist had made a surprisingly violent film, a scabrous indictment of the genocide inflicted by “stupid fucking white men” on Native Americans. Blood spurted, skulls were crushed, and bodies piled up in this nightmare on earth. Fans looking for the gentle laughs of “Down By Law” didn't quite know what to do, and a few former critical boosters (like Roger Ebert) took the opportunity to jump ship.

“A Touch of Sin” (2013) is, at least in some ways, director Jia Zhangke's “Dead Man.” There are noteworthy parallels between Jia and Jarmusch, though they shouldn't be overstated. Both directors cite Robert Bresson as a formative influence and both have often been attracted to marginalized protagonists surviving on the fringes of urban society. Like Jarmusch (born in 1953), Jia (born in 1970) is viewed as one of the defining figures of his generation's independent film movement; bootleg copies of Jia's heavily censored early films like “Pickpocket” (1997) changed hands regularly on the Chinese black market and inspired legions of cineastes from Jia's home province of Shanxi all the way to Beijing (and even attracted financial support from Takeshi Kitano's production company in Tokyo).

From the festival breakthrough “Platform” (2000) through critically praised works such as “The World” (2004) and “Still Life” (2006), Jia established himself as one of the preeminent chroniclers of China's rapid transformation to an industrial and capitalist economy, a globe-altering metamorphosis that displaced millions of Chinese citizens. Jia's characters face off against forces too big even to acknowledge their existence, but while his movies are inevitably tinged with a sense of sorrowful resignation, they also became increasingly playful, occasionally outright hilarious. They have also been, to the exasperation of many “slow cinema” skeptics, long on patient observation and short on dramatic incident.

“A Touch of Sin,” by contrast, plunges headlong into incident: no fatalistic watching and waiting here. In the first few minutes, a man on a motorcycle is accosted by thugs armed with hammers and axes; his handgun wins the day and initiates a body count that reaches double digits. And he's not even the main character of the opening section of a film organized into four separate but loosely connected segments (another Jarmuschian parallel, though JJ doesn't exactly own the format). 

Dahai is still mad
 That honor belongs to Dahai (Jiang Wu), a former coal miner turned social crusader in Shanxi who rages against the corruption of local officials who sold the publicly-held mine and clung very privately to the profits. Brash and loud-mouthed, he has probably never been good at winning friends and influencing people, but he does his best to funnel his furious protests through official channels before personally confronting the big boss, a meeting that winds up with Dahai being savagely beaten with a shovel wielded by one of the boss's thugs. Whether spurred by his head trauma or his innate obstinacy, Dahai grabs a shotgun and cuts a bloody swath through town starting with a low-level crooked accountant and ending with the money-grubbing politicos at the top.

Like most of the violence in the film, the shootings are artfully and artificially staged. Heads explode, bodies launch through the air on wires, geysers of blood soak clothing and walls. Nothing coy here, but also nothing particularly realistic. These are movie murders and Jia makes overt references to films most Western viewers (including yours truly) aren't too familiar with; the movie's English title is a pun on King Hu's popular wuxia (martial arts) film “A Touch of Zen” (1971). 

Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao) makes her point
 Jia loves to collapse the barriers between documentary and fiction, and freely mixes surrealism with naturalism. That's not quite what he's up to here, but it might explain the movie's abrupt detours into full-blown “movie-dom.” In the third segment, Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao, Jia's long-time muse and now wife) works in the “Nightcomer Sauna” as a receptionist. A pushy businessman mistakes her for something else and won't take no for an answer as he insists on a “massage.” The otherwise passive Xiaoyu reaches in her purse for a switchblade and, posing like an avenging angel from one of a host of wuxia films, slices the abusive john to bits, then wanders the streets in a daze, drenched head to toe in blood. I've spoken to some viewers who find moments like this distracting or phony, but they're intended to disrupt the apparent realism of each situation, though with my lack of familiarity with the cultural touchstones Jia references, I'm reluctant to guess precisely what his motivations are.

All four of the movie's major stories are drawn loosely from real-life incidents in China that went largely ignored by the state-controlled media. I don't know enough to claim that violent crime has become more common in China over the past decade or two, but “A Touch of Sin” definitely portrays a nation traumatized by upheaval, with money being the root of all brutality. In the final segment, a feckless but generally well-meaning teenager (Luo Lanshan) loses his soul to the twin destructive forces of young love and factory work, Jia's response to a rash of suicides by assembly-line employees at the multinational corporations that rushed in to exploit cheap Chinese labor. The protagonist of the second segment (Wang Baoqiang, also the motorcyclist from the opening) may be the most damaged character of all, but his dysfunction is more difficult to link to current events: he is a killer who likes to shoot guns because everything else (including village life with his family) is too boring. Perhaps the fresh whiff of prosperity, tantalizingly out of reach by legal means, has made it difficult for him to play by the rules anymore.

I should note that I haven't seen Jia's first film “Pickpocket” so it's possible that what I'm describing as a major departure is a return to roots. However, “A Touch of Sin” is not only much more graphic than Jia's previous 21st century movies, it also moves at a more relentless pace with few of the long, contemplative takes that have marked most of his work. The movie races from one violent eruption to the next, and the sense of inevitable tragedy builds implacably. There are still a few moments of Jia-esque humor (Dahai, in the midst of his righteous rampage, prepares to kick down a door but stumbles when startled by a phone ringing off-screen) but everyone here is just circling the black hole at the center of capitalist China, waiting to spiral into its gravity well and be torn to shreds.

It's all quite a shock for a Jia fan expecting more “Still Life” and it's a challenge to process. It might be my least favorite of his movies, but I still count it as one of the best films of 2013 which should tell you what I think of this extraordinary filmmaker. I can't wait to see whether this marks a new turn in Jia's career, or if it will turn to be a bracing exception. 


Video:
The film is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This high-def transfer from Kino Lorber has the slightly soft look of a movie originally shot on HD with the occasional instance of digital blurring in scenes with rapid motion, but nothing significant that would detract from the viewing experience. Image detail is sharp throughout and colors are vibrant, though the film (shot by Jia's long-time collaborator Yu Lik-wai) is not exactly meant to look beautiful. The look ranges from drab (a lonely, ignored statue of Mao overlooks a declining town square in Shanxi) to gaudy (a nightclub/sex fantasy room made up to look like a train car reserved for party officials) and the 1080p image presents it all vividly, though with a few flaws.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is crisp and has a convincing sense of depth; gunplay almost overwhelms the speakers at times. The sound is as angry as the story at times. Optional English subtitles support the Mandarin and Cantonese dialogue.

Extras:
All we get are five trailer for films from Kino Lorber.

Final Thoughts:
In my review of “Still Life,” I described Jia Zhangke as my favorite under-50 director. I've had no reason to revise that claim. “A Touch of Sin” may be his most accessible movie, admittedly an ambiguous description. It won Best Screenplay for Jia at Cannes in 2013 and placed highly on most year-end critical polls. Unfortunately this is a bare-bones release from Kino Lorber, but it's great to have this available to more viewers. Everyone needs “A Touch of Sin.”