For this, at once his most conventional and experimental undertaking, Jia has taken four stories of rage, violence and murder inspired by unofficial news reports that appeared on Weibo (the Chinese Twitter). Although each story only casually interlinks, all bear the scars of China’s rapid transformation from communist behemoth to capitalist superpower. In the first, and most politically direct, an ex-miner is driven to murder by corruption; in the second, the weakest of the four, a man steals and kills for the sake of boredom; a woman takes on the spirit of Lady Snowblood to stab a would-be rapist in the third; and in the final segment, beautifully shot by cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai, a young kid drifts aimlessly through his adolescence on his travels to the South.
Together, as four-parts, the film is frustratingly uneven, but taken as one-act narratives, it is consistently gripping and fascinating. It turns out Jia has a heretofore undiscovered gift for action film-making. The brutality is stylish enough to have a visceral kick, but justified so it has emotional and socio-political weight. As soon as we feel its consequences, Jia brings the violence past the point of gratification, makes us aware that violence breeds violence and contends, finally, that when humans are treated like beasts (images of animals in distress is one of the recurring leitmotifs in the film), we are apt to retaliate like them.
So it comes as no surprise that the action format is just another way for Jia to return to the subject that dominates all of his work: a 21st century China in which humanism is being swallowed up by a tidal wave of ‘progress’. This is no less direct or impassioned a philippic than what has come before; in fact it may even be more so. Never has Jia been so brash, out of control and, in a word: angry. Such a departure suggests Jia is furiously lashing out, as if the predatory threat of capitalism has become a full-scale global war. Thus even when the film fails, it is never less than a rampant, guttural cry for help from a director with some painful truths to tell.