The Contemporary Chinese Workers’ “Sin” – Film Review

This essay evaluates the Chinese movie “A Touch Of Sin”. The movie lasted for 2 hours and 9 minutes, and it is directed by Jia Zhangke. The movie is shot with 35mm film, and its soundtrack is a combination of normal sounds of Chinese society and traditional opera instruments and vocal performances. The movie is mainly starred by Jiang Wu, Luo Lanshan and Zhao Tao. The movie was nominated for numerous awards, such as the Palme d’Or and Best Screenplay at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Ranging from rural towns to urban cities, the movie is divided into four stories to feature the livelihood and sufferings of modern Chinese labor. This essay argues “A Touch of Sin” denounced the modernization of China by portraying the societal inequality and urban-rural gap.

To reflect the true livelihood of contemporary Chinese labor, each of the movie stories was set in four different cities, which were Shanxi, Chongqing, Hubei and Guangdong respectively. Each of them was connected with an incident that had happened in the real world. The first story centered on a villager named Dahai, who worked at a private coal mine in Shanxi. He was not satisfied with the injustice that the villagers had been facing, as they did not get the remuneration they should get, while the money all went to the local officials’ pockets. Dahai did try to confront those officials, but he was beaten up. Finally, he was so angry that he killed most of the corrupt officials. The Chongqing story had San’er as the main character, who was a serial killer and robbed the victims’ money for his own family. Xiaoyu was the main character in Hubei’s story, who first being assaulted by her lover’s wife for being a third party, then was sexually assaulted by some corrupted officials. The last story was played by Xiaohui, a young Dongguan migrant worker who came from Hunan. His story ended with his suicide after several humiliations, first his relationship with Linrong then his encounter with Chang Ling, his previous coworker. All four stories together helped the audience to understand what problems the Chinese low-level labor was facing, which included systematic corruption and huge wealth inequality.

The Chinese Communist party had an official narrative of the “China Dream” towards modernization, and that narrative refers to “a national renaissance of wealth and strength”. However, this movie heavily critiqued such narrative through putting the huge social inequality between the rich merchants and bureaucrats and the poor rural villagers on screen. Dahai’s story was a concrete example, compared to the mine owner Jiao who grew rich and owned a private aeroplane with his growing business, his fellow villagers had remained poor. Social inequality not only existed in terms of income, but also in social status. Such inequality can be seen in the endings: Due to the lack of sources to channel the characters’ anger and helplessness, four of them were all forced to take violent actions to counter the injustice they had faced. Before Dahai took up his gun to kill the corrupted officials and entrepreneurs, he had attempted to demand justice through relatively peaceful means, which included verbal confrontations and gathering other workers’ opinions. Dahai’s case was not unique in reality, as workers’ solidarities were nurtured in the broad sense of workplace networks.  Xiaoyu’s story was also a case to show the low-level worker’s helplessness. She slammed the door a couple of times and stated repeatedly that she was not a prostitute, and she was forced to defend herself with a knife after those officials’ continuous ignorance. The director did not show such escalation by random, instead he tried to show the audience that low-level workers were still suffering, hence they did not share the economic fruits of “the China Dream”. Even if they tried to join together to advocate for change, such as forming worker organizations, they usually faced the fate of more serious oppression.  If those discontents were not properly handled, those violent eruptions might just turn into avalanches of social discontent and disruption.

The film also critiqued the “China Dream” from the perspective of migrant workers. Except Da Hai, the other three of them even spend more time in the city than in their rural hometowns. Their decisions to leave were mostly for searching a better life, rather than staying in their hopeless villages. Such motivation linked to the concept of “differentiated citizenship”, which means the strategies of migrants were based on the hierarchies and imaginations of places. From the perspective of rural villagers, urban China was ranked higher than rural China for migration decisions in respond to the huge gap in living conditions.  Take San’er as an example, he only visited his family shortly for festivals and birthday celebrations, and he earned a living through robbing in prosperous downtowns like Chongqing. Differ from those living in cities, his fellow villagers did not have much to be robbed. This gap was created because of the emphasis on industrialization, as the state had vigorously supported local and foreign private sector economies. Those economies existed in the pattern of factories, which global corporations outsourced the labour they need to China. This motivated the migrants to “washed their feet to enter their city” to work in foreign-invest industrialization in coastal provinces. Unfortunately, the search was not necessarily lead to success. For instance, Xiaohui was a migrant worker to Dongguan searching for better working environment and wages, and he worked for nightclubs and a Taiwanese-owned factory. Instead of getting a higher pay, he faced depressive moments like rejection from lovers and besiegement of debts, and he had no way out other than suicide. Such phenomenon was popular among current migrant workers, they were trapped in dead-end when their dreams were not realized. Hence, the director exposed what was hidden in the “China Dream” – The urban-rural gap and the sacrifice of migrant workers.

In short, “A Touch of Sin” has closely connected with the themes of societal inequality and migrant workers in contemporary China. Those problems that the film exposed heavily critiqued the Chinese version of modernization. The film ended with a question “Do you know the sin?”, which questioned the audience whether the characters’  tragedies were their own fault or not. Although the societal inequality and the urban-rural gap were significantly narrated, the director simply connected powerless nobodies with the act of violence. The director might want to present the livelihood of low-level workers were tragic, but tragedies did not only exist in the form of violence. In other words, the film ignored factors like personal character and criminal psychology when the characters had encountered injustice. Despite the loophole of over-simplicity, the audience still learn a lot about what predicaments the Chinese labour face.

Reference List

Chen, Lux, Cynthia Rowell, and Jia Zhangke. “Searching for Dignity in the Ocean of People: An Interview with Jia Zhangke.” Cinéaste 44, no. 2 (2019): 22–25.

Driessen, Miriam. 2018. “Rural Voids.” Public Culture 30 (1): 61–84. Jia, Zhangke, dir. 2013. A Touch of Sin.

Pun, Ngai. 2019. “The New Chinese Working Class in Struggle.” Dialectical Anthropology, August.

Wilmsen, Brooke and Michael Webber. 2015. “Displacement and Resettlement as a Mode of Capitalist Transformation.” In Global Implications of Development, Disasters and Climate Change: Responses to Displacement from Asia Pacific, 59–73.

Woodman, Sophia, and Zhonghua Guo. 2017. “Introduction: Practicing Citizenship in Contemporary China.” Citizenship Studies 21 (7): 737–54.

Xiao, Jiwei. 2015. “China Unraveled: Violence, Sin, and Art in Jia Zhangke’s a Touch of Sin.” Film Quarterly.

Thomas Yue
Thomas Yue
Thomas Yue is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in University of Toronto. His major are Contemporary Asian Studies and History. His research interests include development and modernization of east Asian cities, Canadian politics, and Asian social movements.