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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

A Touch of Sin movie review: people’s uprising

A Touch of Sin green light

It’s been banned in China for its savage criticism of that nation’s economic and social policies. But its horrors look awfully familiar to us in the West, too.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s been banned in China, and no wonder. Writer-director Zhangke Jia’s quartet of based-on-fact tales of economic and social inequality driving ordinary people to violence is savagely critical of how that nation is racing to catch up with the rest of the industrialized and postindustrialized world. But what we see here looks very familiar indeed: Corruption and injustice creating a circle of disorder and death and protecting those who profit from it? Frustrated citizens made powerless by a vast economic machine that is actively hostile to their needs? No, A Touch of Sin depicts a vast cultural tragedy that is far from exclusively Chinese. Their stories, set in disparate places across China’s vast and vastly different landscapes, don’t much intersect, which only underscores how widespread the anger is: there is the miner (Wu Jiang) who has watched his “leaders” get rich selling off community assets and has had enough; there is the receptionist (Tao Zhao) at a “sauna” (read: brothel) who lashes out at a rich client who presumes ownership of her body; there is a migrant worker (Baoqiang Wang) who turns to literal daylight robbery on city sidewalks when he discovers the power a gun offers; there is a young factory worker (Lanshan Luo) driven to despair by the treadmill of underpaid, demeaning work he will seemingly never escape. (The latter’s plight is something we’ve all recently learned more about via the scandals of Apple’s Chinese factories.) An almost gentle horror hovers in the background throughout, of ravaged countrysides and apocalyptically polluted city skylines, punctuated by moments of shocking brutality — some all the more so for how unexpected they are — as those who’ve been ground down into near nothingness assert their individuality and self-determination in the only way that seems left to them. It’s a striking argument for the notion that the way we’ve organized the world is driving people to places of insane desperation from which there appears to be little escape.


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A Touch of Sin (2013)
US/Can release: Oct 04 2013
UK/Ire release: May 16 2014

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong bloody violence and strong language)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Rick Baumhauer

    Not to diminish the theme of the film, which is important, and the fact that the film has been banned in China is, as you say, hardly surprising. However, using the phrase “Apple’s Chinese factories” as shorthand is lazy and incorrect.

    The entire electronics industry has a “working conditions problem”, all over the world (not just in China, or just in Asia). Apple’s name gets attached to any reporting on it because Apple gets pageviews, above any other consideration. This is despite the fact that Apple is the only major electronics company that spells out, very clearly, the conditions it expects its suppliers to meet, and also has an auditor produce an annual report on whether the suppliers live up to the standards Apple sets. Are those standards up to Western expectations of what a “good job” would provide – no, of course not, but they are far more than any competing company has produced.

    You could just as easily have mentioned the recent stories of Samsung apologizing to the families of workers at its South Korean plants for rare cancers they contracted that are linked to chemicals used in semiconductor production, after years of denial, press intimidation, and stonewalling (see this BusinessWeek story http://is.gd/me4eqc). While it was widely-reported, though, it wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as the “reporting” on Apple connected with Mike Daisy’s largely-fictionalized account of what he “found” at Apple plants in China (and that got “This American Life” to spend an entire episode basically apologizing for airing Daisy’s original story). There have also been many incidents of worker suicide, illness, or improper treatment at factories that produce Microsoft’s Xbox console and many other products for essentially every electronics company in the world, but those get almost no mainstream press attention because they weren’t about Apple.

    Stories like this have an insidiousness about them (everybody “knows” that Al Gore claimed he invented the internet, right?) – the fact that it turned up in a capsule review of a movie confirms that. The sad fact is that modern capitalism/consumerism is, in part, based on our most useful gadgets being produced by armies of faceless people halfway around the world in conditions we would never tolerate for ourselves. It sucks, and everybody has to make decisions about how ‘okay’ they’re willing to be with that set of facts, but implying that it’s an “Apple problem” greatly diminishes the scope of what is really happening.

  • Thanks, Apple PR Guy. But no, in fact, I was not lazy or incorrect to say that news stories about Apple’s Chinese factories is how many of us in the West heard about conditions there. Because regardless of how widespread horrible conditions may be, it IS because of the stories about Apple that we learned of it! This is an entirely appropriate shorthand for *how we learned about a wider issue.*

    It’s not like this is a business site devoted to the electronics industry. I am NOT spreading any untruths about Apple. And I’ve said nothing here that ANYONE could infer to mean that Apple is the sole bad operator.

    People who “know” that Al Gore claims to have invented the Internet are idiots. And you are wildly unfair to suggest that I’ve done the equivalent.

    Now, would you like to talk about the film?

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