Among the debts we owe China is the one for Jia Zhang-Ke, who for more than a decade has been proving himself a poet of cinema, a director who can find spectacle in the everyday, and who -- along with the celebrated Ai Weiwei -- may be the artistic conscience of his country. As such, his message is not always welcome or easy, but he has such an off-balance delivery and understated style that one may not even notice the tropes he's using are imported from us.
In addressing the two-pronged beast of westernization / corruption, Jia gives us a multipronged and engrossing set of plots. In one, Dahai, a disgruntled member of the proletariat complains about the sale of a state-owned coal mine by a local gangster, and is beaten by henchmen. His response is straight out of Sergio Leone or Charles Bronson. Jia leaves Dahai to follow a mysterious biker who guns down three would-be bandits on the way to his mother's birthday party, then engages in his own crimes of what seem like hired assassinations out of an Oliver Stone playbook. Next, two young people are hired at what seems to be a classy resort, which, in reality, is an upscale brothel, where they adapt to what is the amorphous value system of a freshly corrupted Chinese capitalist class.
Most satisfying is the story of Xiao Yu, the castoff mistress of a factory manager who leaves town, finds work as a receptionist at a massage parlor, is subjected to sexual harassment by middle managers on vacation, and dispatches them quickly -- like a geisha ninja out of "Kill Bill Vol. 1." What Jia achieves is a combination social tragedy and revenge comedy in which Xiao listens to a Peking opera actor ask, "Do you understand your sin?" and thinks the question is actually for her.
PLOT Multiple story lines about a whistle-blower gone postal, a mysterious hit man, a married factory owner with a girlfriend and the girlfriend's stabbing regrets -- and sharp knife. Unrated
CAST Baoqiang Wang, Tao Zhao, Wu Jiang (in Mandarin with English subtitles)
BOTTOM LINE Understated epic about the present of China -- and its soul -- is propulsive and provocative.