Film

Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013) & A Night of the Sunflowers (Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo, 2006).

I’d found these two films randomly in an ex-rentals bin at my local library. After watching both I was surprised how similar the two films were despite being completely different countries, China and Spain. Both shared similarities, narratively and thematically, and showed a  combination of social realism and dream-like visual landscapes. Rather conspicuously, these could be labelled ‘art-house’ films for there beautiful and open-ended approach to narrative storytelling, although they’re not as accessible or engrossing as Jacques Audiard’s or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s similarly dark and poetic films (Rust and Bone, The Revenant, The Prophet, Amores Perros etc).
Both depict outsiders on the fringes on society who inadvertly become encumbered by moral and political frissons in their communities and which ultimately result in violence that cannot resolved. Perhaps this is indicative of modern, or postmodern, European and arthouse cinema, where these films portray multiple characters, sometimes in different time periods, but are connected by one location or event that unites them. Often this is extremely disparate with no obvious reason or link whatsoever, other than a theme, such as employment, neighbours, or witnesses in a crime. This ambiguity allows the audience speculate the ‘meaning’ behind the characters struggling with the ubiquitous force or person who is oppressing them.
In Touch of Sin, we follow the plight of migrating workers attempting to pursue justice or employment in the provinces of China and its affluent cities. This seems like both a political statement and criticism of globalisaton and consumerism. The first story shows a middle-aged worker arriving by motorcycle at a traffic accident where a truck full of vegetables has overturned, but noone seems to care. When he arrives at a coal mine, which has just been sold against the interests of the workers, he attempts to seek answers from the company’s boss, who is arriving by jet that same day and who the villagers have organised a celebraton for. This escalates into bloody violence, with the ostracised man, perhaps in homage to Béla Tarr,  shooting a farmer who mercilessly whips his horse.
Several stories follow as different characters, oblivious to each another, cross paths on roads or a train platforms entirely at random and without explanation or further thought. A middle-aged woman is assaulted by a group businessmen at a massage parlour before brutally stabbing them. Another motorcyclist finds work as a hitman before taking a bus journey somewhere, leaving his family (perhaps for the last time?). A young woman takes several jobs as a hostess, while the young man who loves her struggles to find work. The only person who seems to escape her problems is the woman from the massage parlour, who we return to later in the narrative and we find she has changed her identity and is looking to get office work in a different city. There’s no explanation or resolution to any of these individual journeys and find this bewildering.
Night of the Flowers also explores disparate characters within the context of a fractured social hierarchy, but with much less political and social commentary. It’s closer to the spiritual decay of Amores Perros, a crime thriller set in Mexico, and which focuses on the aftermath of violence and retribution.
On the surface it’s a fairly simple plot, a group of academics visit a cave to take samples, but while the men are occupied, a woman in their team is sexually assaulted by a passing stranger. In retaliation, the men mistake a local farmer as the perpetrator and kill him, but when the police are called the officer inexplicably persuades the group to hide the body and say the farmer went missing, possibly to protect the woman. Afterwards, the officer’s wife tells her father, the policer supervisor, that she’s pregnant but is afraid to tell her husband. Investigating the murder, the supervisor suspects foul play and that his son-in-law might be responsible, but he is unable to pursue it without hurting his daughter.
Arguably, this feels like a typical Spanish melodrama, one about the lies between husbands and wives, fathers and sons, and this seems characteristic of Spanish cinema and television. But, like Amores Perro and Pedro Almodóvar’s films, there’s a sense of modernity as time passes and the past is forgotten. This one tragic event has hidden implications as the family and its constitution quietly falls apart, as are the victims who are unable to find closure and the real criminals remain indifferent.

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