One of the things I'm going to miss about New York is movies like this. Sure, something on this level will end up playing in Chicago, but there's something special about a movie like this, which you find yourself seeing because you've seen everything else, and think "What the hell, I'll take a chance..." And then sometimes see something really special.
This movie tells four somewhat related stories taking place in contemporary China, and is notable for clearly demonstrating how a country's political and economic decisions can shape the personal lives of its inhabitants--a difficult thing to do, without seeing lecturing or too didactic. We open with a man riding through a desolate landscape on a motorcycle. A young man stands in front of him with a knife, and two others come up behind. They demand his money. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a gun, then shoots all three in the head and rides on. Then we have our credits, over a wallpaper pattern on jungle leaves.
We now meet Dohai, who is bitter about the local government, who made promises to the town they haven't kept, while they have become personally rich. He can't get over his grievances, which we assume are justified, while it's clear that others just want to lay low and deal with what's given to them. We him refused work because of his attitude, then writes a letter of protest to the justice commission. He is told that he must have the exact address, although the location is widely known. Soon the local leader, Juao, is coming to town, and everyone who attends and chants a welcome message will receive a sack of flour. Dohai goes, and asks Juao, who he apparently knows, about his broken promises. He is beaten with a shovel, then wakes in a hospital, where a man throws a stack of cash at him and says the case is closed. On the walk home, he learns that everyone now calls him Mr. Golf, because his head was beaten as though the men were golfing.
SPOILERS > > >
Dohai gets a shotgun and a box of ammunition. We pan over to a towel showing a tiger, and hear a roar. Dohai goes to one official's house, and demands at gunpoint that the man write a confession of his corruption. The official then taunts Dohai for being a coward, and gets his head blown off in response. He next sees the guy who first called him Mr. Golf, and blows him away. After killing a man who is beating a horse, he gets in the back seat of Juao's expensive car. When Juao gets in, he blows his head off. The last thing we see in this segment is Doahi breaking into a wide smile.
We now join motorcycle guy from the opening. He arrives home, where no one is happy to see him, including his wife and mother. He pinches his son's cheeks until the boy cries. He apparently left his wife and child without warning. At a certain point he lights three cigarettes and holds them in a ritual, saying he is "praying to ghosts" (apparently the three he murdered). he says that he didn't do it, God did, and if they have any issues, they should take them up with him. He wanders the streets all day, and buys three tickets to three cities. That night, his wife finds them, and asks him where he's going. He says he doesn't know. She asks why he's leaving, and he says that the town is boring, and the only fun thing is shooting guns. He goes into the city, and in a long, suspenseful sequence, enacts a long and complicated plan that ends in his shooting a couple in the head in the middle of a busy street, just to take the woman's purse.
In our third segment, we meet a woman who has come to a rest stop to meet a married man she's having an affair with. She tells him that he has six months to divorce his wife or the affair is over. He is getting on a train, and is not allowed to take a small knife, so she takes it. She goes to work at a sauna, which features the jungle wallpaper we saw under the credits. That night she is attacked by her lover's wife, and hides out in this tourist attraction crawling with snakes--it's impossible for me to explain. Back at work, she is harassed by two guys who want to use her as a prostitute, although that is not her job at the sauna. They keep coming in (and that door doesn't lock?) until... Well, you remember how she kept that knife? The movie now starts veering into magical realism and martial arts territory as she becomes a one-woman avenger, while also at the end of her emotional tether.
Our final segment concerns a young man with bleached hair who works at a factory. He is talking to a friend when the friend's hand gets caught in one of the machines. The boss (who is the one having an affair with the woman from the previous segment) blames him for talking to the guy, and says he must work the next two weeks without pay, his wages will go to his injured friend. He hears about a job in another city and skips town. In the city, he is a waiter at a high-end brothel where the prostitutes march out in skimpy parodies of Red Army uniforms. he befriends one of them, and they start hanging out. At a certain point, she releases goldfish in order to win karma points to make up for being a prostitute. As another critic observed about this, in this film: "You have to be taken captive in order to be set free." He falls in love with her, but she makes it clear that her past makes a union impossible. His friend that he screwed out of pay for his injuries finds him. In a nightmarish apartment complex called the "Oasis of Prosperity," he makes a rash and final decision.
In a last coda, the woman from the massage parlor comes to a job fair run by the wife of Jiao, the bigwig killed in the first segment. She has heard of her crime, and asks if the trouble is behind her, and asks "Do you understand your sin?" The woman says yes, and the last shot is of a group of townspeople, making clear that this film refers to all the people of contemporary China.
< < < SPOILERS END
So, not exactly fun, and a touch grueling to sit through, and seeming longer than it is, but very, very rewarding and leaves one with a great deal to think about. If you have no idea what's going on in contemporary China, it would pay to do a bit of reading before going in, on the mass relocations of millions of people to make way for the Three Gorges Dam or forcing people out of villages and installing them into new high-rises, the vast institutional corruption, the state control of the Internet, the depopulating of the countryside and overpopulation of cities, and the huge and growing gulf between rich and poor. As I said: I knew I'm glad I'm not living in modern China, and now I'm even more glad.
The movie alludes to many of the above issues with small touches and glancing references, like desolated small towns, abandoned buildings towering in the background, horrible, dingy malls in the city, overcrowded buses being extorted by corrupt police, and more. Then of course, there are the stories in the foreground, which show the effect of the country's political and economic policies in the daily lives of its inhabitants, and demonstrating how the only way for these characters to have any measure of control and autonomy is to resort to violence. None of this is irrelevant to lives in the United States, and although the situations are not the same, there are enough similarities to glean insights from.
So yeah, not exactly a roller coaster thrill ride in the Iron Man 3 vein, but a carefully made movie with both political and personal resonance that is likely to stay with you for a long time.
Yes, if you like serious quality films, or are interested in contemporary China.