Quick Hits: The Consequences of Capitalism in Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin”; Magical Scene: The Ending of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights”

“And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour’s a cost. And if labour is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.”- David Simon

Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin,” the winner of the best screenplay at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and now playing at the IFC Center in New York City, was the best “action” movie I saw in 2013. I put “action” in quotation marks because it isn’t like the popcorn, American action movie such as “Iron Man 3.” It is based very much in the here and now, in the strange, quickly moving world of globalization and unbridled capitalism of the new China. And while unbridled capitalism has its strengths– namely the accumulation of unprecedented wealth– there are human consequences to it as well. “A Touch of Sin” is one of the rare movies to show the audience just what those consequences are in a splattering of violence and disarray.

(Check out the badass opening to the movie below, and tell me you don’t want to see this.)

Based on 4 actual news stories to come out of  China, “A Touch of Sin” focuses on the lives of those ignored in China’s capitalist regime. There is the coal worker who feels his superiors have cheated him out of money and resorts to justice through a shotgun; an outlaw who robs and kills to make living; a sauna worker who is forced into violence after much humiliation; and a young man who who self-destructs after his attempts to find meaning through the Chinese economy. There are other characters too forced into unflattering work because of the new realities, including young women forced into prostitution. Zhangke’s longtime Cinematographer, Yu Lik-Wai, uses digital cinematography throughout the movie, which gives the movie a heady, documentary-like immediacy that feels as we are watching the events unfold as they are actually happening.

The film’s violence is impulsive and vicious. But Zhangke, I feel, sympathizes with those who commit the violence. Yes, they might be infected with sin as the title suggests, but they are symptoms of China’s focus on unbridled capitalism, not the disease.  As horrified as I was by the violence in the movie, I also felt a sense of justice and liberation for these people when they finally acted with a measure of power. It may not be pretty but powerless people, especially the economically powerless, can only take so much before they fight back. 


I’ve been thinking about my favorite movie endings of all-time, and the one that always sticks with me is the ending to Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights.” In 1949, the critic James Agee referred to the final scene in the film as the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid,” and I tend to agree. That a silly comedy about a poor Tramp could have a scene of such emotional pathos is a movie miracle . When the previously blind woman, who regains her sight, realizes that the Tramp is the man she loves… well it’s enough to make anyone weepy. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should probably shouldn’t watch the clip. But if you have seen it, enjoy it again as much as I did.

2 thoughts on “Quick Hits: The Consequences of Capitalism in Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin”; Magical Scene: The Ending of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights”

  1. Pingback: My Favorite Films of 2013, #10-6 | Magical Reelism

  2. Pingback: My Favorite Films of 2013, #5-1 | Magical Reelism

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