Weaving together four stories of people living in different Chinese provinces, this drama follows a miner protesting corruption, a migrant worker with a gun, a factory drone always drifting to a new job and a receptionist who’s been assaulted.
Jia Zhangke, famed for his reserved portraits of modern China, made a sudden switch, combining arthouse neorealism and bloody kung-fu vengeance into an angry political firebomb. Highly controversial—the Chinese government tried to suppress it—it won Best Screenplay at Cannes.
A more recent second viewing corrected my initial misimpression. In fact, the adoption by Zhao Tao of familiar wuxia poses after stabbing a sauna customer who’s been slapping her with a wad of bills for not prostituting herself is clearly designed to function as a Brechtian ‘baring of the device’ at the same time that it functions as an absurd fulfillment of the usual genre expectations. That is, it simultaneously invites our applause and makes us feel ashamed and/or embarrassed for applauding.
Tarantino and his fawning critics aggrandise comic-book style and comic-book-style morality into an impoverished, hypocritical conception of ‘art’; Jia artfully uses moments of comic-book amplification to heighten real-world ills, real-world injustices and the sometimes explosive but finally impotent rage of people trapped within a real world made distorted and grotesque by the predations of the powerful.