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A Touch of Sin
The reddest blue
A Touch of Sin (2013) is an anthology film that exposes us to the despondent human nature of a country, China, living in the intersection of competing ideologies. There is suffering, like in any modern society where trust in institutions is non-existent. I’ve read a few reviews that fault the film's lack of cohesion between characters, but this seems to be by design. These characters are isolated from each other, incapable of finding solace or understanding in anyone going through a similar struggle. This is a film that delves into issues of inequality, corruption, and exploitation faced by workers in different lower-class sectors of China: factory workers, miners, and service industry employees. It shows us modern China's social and economic disparities and their consequences on individuals' lives.
Dahai, who lives in Shanxi, works at a coal mine that has recently been privatized. He fumes at the leaders who lead the sale and have since become very rich. San’er, from Chongqing, opens the film briefly when he is accosted by robbers while riding his motorcycle through Shanxi. He is on his way home to provide what little financial support he can to his wife and his son. Xiaoyu brings us to landlocked Hubei, where she meets with her lover and tries to convince him to leave his wife. In this sequence, the film presses us the hardest to empathize with a character and why they would wish for such a life. Is there no better alternative? Finally, we meet Xiaohui in Guangdong, who works in a textile factory when an accident occurs, which he is responsible for. He is told that he will work for the injured party until they are ready to work again, and all of his wages will go to them.
“Blue collar work,” as we’ve been calling it all month, typically means a person who performs manual labor. You’d be hard-pressed to argue against the assertion that China is the hardest-working country in the world, and A Touch of Sin attempts to show the societal cost of such output. Each episode of this film represents recent events in China’s history. The film was made without the cooperation of Chinese censors and thus hasn’t been released in China as of today. If history is any indication, if something is censored, it’s probably worth watching.
How each episode plays out in this film will surprise and shock you. It’s biting commentary on contemporary society, and it’s also enrapturing entertainment. The movie won an award at Cannes for best screenplay, after all.
In the film's final scenes, a character from one of the four stories walks down a street and happens upon a theatre production on the outskirts of a city. They approach as a dramatic scene unfolds, an actor crying out repeatedly: “Do you understand your sin?” The performance is in an old style, from another time, though still modern. The audience seems entertained, at the very least.
A Touch of Sin
Written and Directed by Jia Zhangke
Mandarin and Cantonese
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
In researching “blue collar” films and trying to find movies that depict the lives and conditions of the working class worldwide, I’ve found that many of the films held in high regard are almost impossible to access on streaming services. Conspiracy? Definitely. Two of these films are very high on my watchlist at the moment. God forbid the working masses are awakened from their stupor by the excellence of these films, which I also have not seen:
If you know where I can find these films, let me know! In return, I will send you a Criterion film of your choice.