Two motorbike rebels meet at the site of a tomato-truck accident: Dahai (seen on the movie poster with a shotgun) and Fuzzy Hat San’er, who kills a few illegal toll-takers a few minutes prior. First let’s follow Dahai (Jiang Wu of Shower and To Live), who is openly contemptuous of his corrupt bosses at the coal mine, finally confronting the big boss himself, at which point Dahai gets his ass whupped on an airport runway. Doesn’t take long for Dahai to heal up, collect himself, and take brutal shotgun-revenge on his bosses plus anyone who gets in his way. It’s about the most blunt anti-corruption half-hour screed I’ve seen, showing the problem then proposing a swift solution – and coming from arthouse slowpoke Jia it’s pretty shocking.
It’s an episodic movie, but more interconnected through characters, locations and themes than something like Wild Tales. In a larger city, Fuzzy Hat (Wang Baoqiang of Blind Shaft and Romancing in Thin Air) has money troubles, and a solution: purse-snatching and murder. Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao, just seen in I Wish I Knew) can’t get her boyfriend to leave his wife, goes to work as a receptionist at a masseuse parlor and when some drunken dudes assume they can buy her, she cuts them up. Young Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan) has shitty luck in the workplace and jumps out his window.
Zhao Tao, never more badass:
The film paints a bleak picture of modern China for the people in a position of powerlessness. Setting each story in a different region of the country further illustrates this sense of widespread exploitation … Each act of violence is a tragic climax in the lives of the characters who can take no more of the injustices that surround them.
R. Koehler in Cinema Scope:
Jia is sending out an early signal that his film is directed from and for a cathartic response, and as we observe his four characters across four segments — roughly traversing a geographic line across the Mainland from north to south and through the seasons — they operate out of gut instinct and momentary impulse. The contemplative young intellectual artists of Platform are long gone — or likely, by now in the new China, have sold out — and in their place are desperate people doing what they need to do to survive.
Fuzzy Hat and his neglected son:
The last two shots of the film show Zhao Tao’s Xiaoyu watching an ancient representation of her destiny, and the audience of the opera looking into camera. The audience is looking at the audience. This is what consistency is about in Jia’s world: to lyrically recreate reality as a folk singer improvises a ballad, so that the untold stories come to light, and that everyone hopefully remembers them and sings along.
Her essay at Mubi puts the movie in essential context. It seems the most obvious of Jia’s films – I don’t mean that as an insult, since I felt the others all went over my stupid head – but even so, there’s so much depth I missed. And of course the film looks as splendid as Jia’s others, which is what keeps me watching them even when I don’t know what they’re about. Won best screenplay at Cannes, the year of Blue is the Warmest Color, Only Lovers Left Alive and Inside Llewyn Davis.