Well I can’t fault the ambition. Jia Zhang-ke’s pessimistic musings on the future of his country sweep across a quarter of a century, charting the emergence of an all-conquering capitalist nightmare that elbows aside Chinese culture. Execution is another matter. After two engaging if overly blunt sections, the third act collapses completely into inept amateur hour. Only Jia’s customary visual flair, a mighty fine performance from Zhao Tao, and a Pet Shop Boys song keep the ship afloat.
Subtlety is not the name of the game here. The opening section set at the turn of the century is a love triangle between playful Tao (Zhao Tao) and her two suitors; business hotshot Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) and working man Liang (Liang Jingdong). Jinsheng is an obnoxious twerp, and it reflects badly on Tao that she chooses him. He spends most of his time discussing his wealth. This is a man who actually names his son Dollar. He’d sell his grandmother if she matched the price of coal.
If Jinsheng is the bleak future and Tao is trapped in between to be chewed up and spat out in years to come, Liang is the back that must be broken for others to profit. After losing out on Tao, the film jumps forward to 2014 where he’s now seriously ill after years down a mine. Only the kindness of friends, notably not Jinsheng, offers a shot at the treatment he requires. In this China, western technology is starting to take over. Apple products are in every hand. A prestige wedding present turns out to be his and her iPhones. The focus shifts to Tao and Dollar, bonding for the first time in years after Jinsheng divorced her and took his son to Shanghai. She plays him traditional music and cooks Chinese food he seems never to have seen before.
It’s only a brief reconciliation, a temporary halt to the march of capitalist progress that will soon erase the country as they know it. In the final act, Jia moves to 2025, a near future where technology is transparent screens and the US economy has tanked. Living in Australia, Dollar only speaks English and must converse with his father through Google translate. Google appears a lot, as does McDonalds.
Here Jia really loses the plot. Operating outside his native language, this Melbourne adventure is staggeringly clumsy. All the English speaking actors look like they fell out a daytime soap. Stilted conversations and bizarre non-sequiturs suggest the whole thing was written via Google translate. It sounds about as authentic. In one of the strangest moments, Jinsheng, using an elderly translator who also turns out to be Dollar’s lover, berates the concept of freedom on the basis that he owns an arsenal of weapons but can’t shoot anyone with them.
The whole third act should have been dropped in a bin and burnt. At least Jia found a number of dazzling shots of his country in the first two parts. Churned up mud, newly constructed concrete bridges and threadbare housing litter the screen while Zhao Tao strides across it. She’s the bridge between the old and new, the only character that isn’t a walking diatribe. She’s nearly completely absent in the third act.
It’s not just the maddeningly misjudged finale that lets the film down. The special effects budget was not put to good use. An obviously fake plane crash and some horribly photo shopped pictures are laughably bad. This hardly helps a story dangerously prone to going overboard to make its point. Jia really does make his point. Repeatedly. It feels like being slapped in the face for two hours. Aside from Tao, the other saving grace is the Pet Shops Boys song Go West which pops up throughout. For all the nonsense he slips in, Jia’s insistence on having characters dance around to a famous western tune quite literally demonstrates his fears over the direction China is going in. But more importantly, this kind of bizarre obsession with an old pop song is exactly the sort of thing the bland conformity of capitalism tries to stamp out. Jia’s heart is in the right place, but somewhere along the way an anguished cry of alarm turns into a confused bellow.
Director: Zhangke Jia
Writer: Zhangke Jia (screenplay)
Stars: Tao Zhao
Country: China, France