Arty Thrillers 'A Touch of Sin' and 'Bastards' Nail the Moment

For many Americans, China is still a land of inscrutable kung fu masters and hand-tilling peasants, thanks largely to the way the nation comes off in movies. That's a view that doesn't really allow for the 1.3 billion 21st-century Chinese who people a rising post-communist economic and military power—a constituency whose ticket-buying power increasingly helps shape what arrives in American multiplexes from Hollywood. But glimpses of something like the real contemporary China are making it through to American home video, though that's not all that makes director Jia Zhang-ke's A Touch of Sin (Kino Lorber DVD and Blu-ray; streaming via Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix) essential viewing.

The Chicago Bulls logo on a motorcyclist's knit hat may surprise Western viewers, but probably not as much as when he pulls out a pistol and coolly guns down three hapless muggers who attempt to waylay him on the road. Jia's previous films, including Still Life and The World, have proven him a gimlet-eyed observer of modern Chinese society. With A Touch of Sin, he looks more closely at its violent aspects. While the four loosely intertwined stories here each revolve around a moment of brutality, Jia makes plain what he sees as the root of these particular evils.

Bearish Dahai (Jiang Wu) may be an obsessive ass-pain in his small town, but it's not mere contrariness that causes him to pick up a shotgun for a methodical rampage: He's looking for the answers as to why the privatization of the local mine has left a handful vastly wealthy and the rest wage slaves. Massage-parlor hostess Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao) leads a life complicated by many things—including her boyfriend's marriage—but it's the entitled aggression of newly flush middle-managers that drives her to violence. Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) gets ground down by the massive Chinese manufacturing sector, which relies on rootless laborers from the provinces. Zhou (Wang Baoqiang), the motorcyclist, simply rejects that fate for aimless crime, empowered by his own personal implement of capitalist agency—a handgun.

Many of the references are unlikely to resonate fully with Western viewers; on the other hand, one blatant reference—involving a symbol of sin as old as Western civilization—clangs like a broken gong. But A Touch of Sin works almost equally well as both a social commentary/drama on the growing pains of a very different China and as a Pulp Fiction-style neo-noir. Again, essential.

Family, sex, power, and secrets fuel French director Claire Denis' recent Bastards (MPI DVD; streaming via Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix), but there's clearly a recessionary setting to Denis' own neo-noir, and corrupting cashflow percolates throughout: who has it, how they get it, what they use it for, how they handle it.

A French manufacturing family has come to near-ruin: the father a nearly bankrupt suicide, the daughter hospitalized after being found wandering naked and traumatized, the mother a wreck. She calls on her brother Marco (Vincent Lindon), a cargo-ship captain, to come clean up the mess. He moves into an apartment just above that of Edouard (Michel Subor), the powerful man whom he believes ruined his brother-in-law. And as part of a plan of vengeance, or maybe just as an inadvertent bonus, Marco soon begins an intense affair with Edouard's comely younger wife, Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni).

That quick plot sketch makes Bastards sound far more straightforward than it is. A more intuitive filmmaker than Jia, Denis rarely delivers easily digested narrative and simple interpretations. Who some characters are and how they relate isn't clear at first, and in a few cases, it never really becomes evident. But she has nonetheless capped a gusher of powerful impulses and channels it into observations of contemporary ugliness.

Lindon—like many cast members, a Denis regular—exudes a casual old-school masculinity that brings to mind Robert Mitchum, making him credible as both a determined avenger and as the catalyst for a hot middle-aged nooner with Mastroianni's character, whose sweet eyes and good heart shine through her trophy-wife veneer. But as the film unfolds, Marco seems less the architect of a plot against Edouard's family than the victim of the venal evils that have brought his own family low. His niece, Justine (Lola Creton), is no mere passive victim of sexual violence. His sister and brother-in-law are not upright business people undone by cruel fate. Edouard may be a repellent villain, but the film's title is plural. Though Denis doesn't lean on it, Marco's crisp captain's whites and his shipboard remove from his family and ordinary society mark him out ultimately as both hero and rube.

Bastards flirts with the limits of narrative logic in spots, but then so does The Big Sleep, and no one is likely to mistake the basic human drives at the roots of either. Like A Touch of Sin, Bastards is a noir for right now.