The anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre is upon us, so here is a movie about violence in China.
Below is maybe the second shot of the movie. No other context is given yet.
We shift to a different guy on a different motorcycle, riding down the road. He encounters three young men brandishing axes and yelling at him to stop. Instead of just speeding past them, he stops.
The three men demand money…so the motorcyclist shoots two of them immediately. The third, briefly petrified, eventually tries to run, but the motorcyclist rides after him and shoots him in the back. And then he continues on his journey…okay.
Oh, the motorcyclist passes the first motorcyclist and the overturned tomato truck from…erm…the start of the movie…and now we are back on this first guy.
Uh oh. It looks like there is a corpse by the truck. Was that the driver?
JESUS! The fuck was that??
Okay…so, I guess that the guy survived that explosion and made it to a restaurant, where he…gets his stubble stroked by a singing woman before sitting down to eat. Or is this a different day, due there being lots of snow?
Well, anyways, the man heads to a town called Wujinshan, or Black Gold Mountain, about 300 miles southwest of Beijing. At one point, multiple police cars and a police van go speeding past in the opposite direction. What was that about? Not his concern. When he arrives, a group of men transporting a painting ask him for directions to Wujinshan and he says that this is it. Highway 307? This is it. Odd. Perhaps they had been expecting something grander than this. In any case, the men transporting the Madonna painting circle around the statue of Mao.
After going home and injecting himself with…what I am guessing is insulin…the guy, named Dahai, goes to see a bunch of his fellow workers, probably on their lunch break. He sits down with two of them and asks who owns the trike outside. They don’t know, but it has been there for two days. If no one claims it, Dahai considers selling it. The older guy asks if Dahai would do the same for the village chief’s Audi A6 if it sat outside his house. Dahai argues that, since the chief had bought it from money that he had received by selling the state-owned coal mine, then the A6 belongs to everyone in the village. In fact, he will probably report the chief to Beijing for bribery; get him sent to prison for 20 years. And the mine’s wealthy new boss, Jiao Shengli, has been covering up accidents and pollution. Dahai wants to report him as well. The younger guy doubts that Dahai will make it past the nearby provincial capital of Taiyuan before the chief’s men catch him. And the older guy doubts that the Dahai would be any different if put in charge. Well, anyways, the younger guy suggests jokingly that Dahai can sell Jiao’s Maserati that he leaves outside of the mine and use the money to buy the workers drinks.
The village chief arrives and order everyone outside. Or, at least, the migrants. There was a murder in Shibawan, some other nowheresville around 500 miles to the southwest. The police, apparently, suspect that a migrant was the culprit. Being a local, Dahai doesn’t have to take part, but he goes over to the chief and brings up the promise of yearly dividends after selling off the mine. The chief claims that he has no time for that now, but Dahai threatens to tell the Discipline Commission. The chief mocks Dahai’s tactics and says that he will be a loser his whole life.
The men are gathered outside and the police call on those from Chongqing municipality, which is about 130 miles southeast to 200 miles south of Shibawan. The police check their IDs one by one. One young man runs off and the police try to stop him.
Dahai walks past mountains of coal and a guy whipping a coal transport horse…and the camera lingers on this guy whipping the horse for ten more seconds after Dahai is off screen. Jeez. Was the whipping supposed to get the horse unstuck from the coal pile? Because it didn’t.
Anyways, Dahai writes a letter to the Discipline Commission about the chief and Jiao. He goes to the post office to have it mailed. The employee asks to whom. To the Commission in Zhongnanhai, Beijing. She asks for a full address, which Dahai doesn’t understand. Does he not understand the concept of addresses? Or does he not understand the idea that postal workers would not know how to get to Zhongnanhai, where the Chinese Communist Party Headquarters is located? Well, instead of trying to come to an understanding, Dahai accuses her of being in league with the village chief. Or maybe she is sleeping with Jiao. She orders him to leave, which only serves to deepen his suspicions as he storms out.
Just outside, a bus arrives and a man tells Dahai to get on. Boss Jiao is flying back from Hong Kong on his new private plane and each person who greets at the airport him gets a bag of flour. Dahai is still furious, but he is on the bus and the bus is going. So, he sits down. The guy in front of him asks about the incident with the police. Dahai explains that a loader from Sichuan province (right next to Chongqing) had killed someone in his hometown and had been hiding out here. Apparently, he thought that the police had been after him and panicked. Well, they weren’t, but they caught him anyways. They were actually after the person who shot three guys in Shibawan yesterday…the other motorcyclist at the start of the movie?
Dahai goes to sit by Liu, the village accountant. He brings up Jiao’s promise that 40% of the profits would go to the village, and asks how much the dividends of the last 14 years add up to. Liu tells him that the village committee had signed to sell the mine back in 2001…though that is less than 14 years ago…Dahai doesn’t understand. Did the village committee consult with the villagers? Why doesn’t the money go to the village instead of Jiao’s private plane? Liu gives ridiculously stock answers which, of course, leads to Dahai accusing him of taking bribes. Liu then asks the bus driver to stop, so that he can exit. Dahai calls Liao more evil than Jiao and the chief. With Liu gone, Dahai tries to convince the guy next to him of this injustice, but the guy doesn’t want to hear it.
Dahai is among the crowd to greet Jiao and his wife at the airport. There is a bit of pomp and pageantry, but it looks like Jiao wants to go quickly through it.
Dahai physically takes hold of Jiao, all smiles and words of an old schoolmate. Jiao remains cordial. So Dahai takes his chance and asks Jiao to sponsor his trip to Beijing so that he can file accusations against him and the chief. Jiao agrees, telling Dahai to come pick it up later. That is not good enough for Dahai, who grabs onto Jiao as he tries to leave. He demands that Jiao discuss the village economy now in front of the villagers.
It is unclear how much time has passed, but the ceremony is over and most of the people are leaving. And Dahai gets a shovel to the face thanks to some goon named Xiao Bai. Dahai falls to the ground and Xiao Bai continues to hit him. One of Jiao’s sycophants asks Xiao Bai if he is playing golf.
The sycophant and another sketchy-looking dude go to see Dahai at the hospital. On behalf of the Shengli Group, they bring two baskets of flowers and a few banded stacks of cash. With that settled, they leave.
Some time later, Dahai leaves the hospital and walks around 40 miles southeast to the city of Pingyao, where his sister lives. Well, let’s assume that she is his sister. He encounters his nephew, who appears to be studying English. His nephew doesn’t recognize him, but seems unbothered by his presence. Anyways, his mother is out getting food, but should be back soon. Dahai helps him with an English word: animal. Where is his dad? Out hunting animals. Oh, here is his mother.
Dahai’s sister is…concerned to see him. She reminds him of the time she tried to set him up with a woman from Wangcun, but he would not get over himself. And now look at him. Even if one of his countless accusations stick, he will get old. Dahai says that he doesn’t care; he is already old. She says that he is only middle-aged. He starts to break down, saying that this was his fault. His sister tells him that there is more to life than getting rich. Does he want to be more evil than Jiao Shengli? Why can’t he be happy that one of his former classmates had made something of himself? And, besides, Dahai has his own place, unlike her and her family. Why doesn’t he open up a restaurant or a shop and get married? Nope. Dahai says that he can be more evil than Jiao or the village chief.
Dahai returns to Wujinshan and is walking home when a young man named Liuliu calls him Mr. Golf. Apparently, after the incident at the airport, people call him Mr. Golf. Liuliu probably means no harm and may have an intellectual disability, but it stings Dahai nonetheless.
Now this guy? He meant to be mean. Other people turn around to look at him. Taking a break from watching an opera about an ancient rebel hero, they glare contemptuously at a modern rebel who has been fighting on their behalf.
At home, Dahai takes off his bandage and takes out a shotgun. He loads in some shells and takes note of his tiger flag. It growls at him. He wraps the flag around the shotgun and heads out.
Dahai goes to see Liu. Though he was not invited, Liu’s wife greets him warmly. Dahai asks to speak to Liu, so Liu’s wife leaves the two alone. Dahai sits at the breakfast table across from Liu. Giving Liu a pen and paper, Dahai tells him to write. Write what? Write how much the chief embezzled. Liu refuses, so Daha unwraps his gun and points it him. Liu starts to write, but stops as he hears police sirens getting louder. Liu dares Dahai to shoot. Dahai can’t. Even with the sirens getting softer. So, he puts the gun on his lap. Liu mocks Dahai as too cowardly to shoot him.
Dahai shoots him.
Liu’s wife rushes in. Before she can see how much of her husband’s face has disappeared, Dahai shoots her. Well, he is in it now.
Dahai goes to the village chief’s office. It looks like only Liuliu is there. He happily greets Mr. Golf. Mr. Golf asks where the chief is. Liuliu tells him that he went to the temple. Mr. Golf asks what Liuliu called him. Mr. Golf. Isn’t that his foreign name?
Mr. Golf shoots Liuliu.
Dahai walks past the statue. A bunch of guys are waiting for a bus on their journey to Fengjie, which is around 750 miles southeast, near Chongqing. One of them asks what Dahai is up to. Going hunting? Hunting animals. Nice callback.
Dahai confronts the chief outside of the temple. The chief tells him to calm down. When that doesn’t work, he says that they can sit down and sort this out. Dahai silently orders the chief where to go…and then shoots him.
Dahai is running to the mine when he encounters that guy whipping his horse. He shoots the guy and continues on his way. You’re free, horse. Well, not from the cart, but from getting whipped by that particular person.
Dahai goes to the mine and goes to Jiao’s car. He opens the door gets into the backseat and waits. Apparently, Jiao did not leave the car locked. Nor does he check the backseat when he gets in, as Dahai gets the drop on him. Jiao asks how they can fix this. Dahai says nothing. He shoots Jiao.
The masterless horse passes by two nuns presumably standing over the corpse of the former master. And three police cars heading towards the mine. I guess that they have no time for this dead guy right when there is a more important dead guy further down the road. And where is the horse going? Who knows?
Suddenly, we are on a boat. A few people who left Wujinshan for Fengjie are on the boat. Are they going to play a bigger part in the story?
Nope. We are following this guy now.
Remember him from the beginning? Well, he is back. And it looks like the police had not caught him yet. In the meantime, Dahai’s story is over.
As you can see, this is an anthology movie, featuring four separate stories that focus on different characters. I am not normally a fan of anthology films, as I look at them more as collections of short pieces as opposed to a proper movie. That the stories may fit thematically or have little connections via easter eggs do not justify turning a bunch of independent stories into a movie. Otherwise, the second season of Black Mirror could treated as a 135-minute movie if one chose to do so.
I think that what justifies this movie for me big time is the framing device: China itself. The stories, loosely based on real events, take place in various parts of China. Some characters in this story travel to other parts of the country, others have already traveled from other parts of the country, and others still know people who have traveled elsewhere. The movie presents a country where everyone, rich or poor, are expected to go around the country. But this travelling is not a symbol of freedom or independence, but obligation and work.
For a country that traditionally places much important on family and home, China has internal migrant workers who stay hundreds of miles away from their families for months and will probably die far from home. Surrounded, but alone. Abused, betrayed, and ignored. It is as if the people, rootless and anonymous, are invisible, which can ironically give them the power of stealth. If one can look at them, it is in disdainful disgust or disdainful desire, which leads to physical violence or psychological violence. The egalitarian principles of the government fail to account for the corruption from low-level bureaucrats and exploitation of the workers.
The framing device of this movie makes it seem that violence is both everywhere and inevitable. It being a movie is an act of mercy: if this were an anthology show, then it could go on forever, featuring story after story to satiate the bloodlust of its fans.
This is the seventh full-length fiction film directed by Jia Zhangke. I have seen…most of his nine movies, and am planning to see the rest soon enough. While he does try to bring different aspects to every new movie that he makes, this one has been considered a greater departure than normal, perhaps due to the graphic and sometimes stylistic depictions of brutal violence. It still has the slow pace and enigmatic meditation on the despairing human struggle through callous changing times, but this one makes it clear that the stories of these characters are not simply leading toward ambivalent passive uncertainty, but certain violence action. In interviews, he had claimed that he was inspired by wuxia movies in presenting the violence in this movie…uh…sure. While the Chinese title translates to Heaven Decides, the English title is a reference to the interminable 1971 wuxia classic A Touch of Zen. Supposedly, Jia had planned on making a more straight-forward wuxia film after this, but…not yet so far. Regardless, I doubt that we shall see Another Touch of Sin, which is a good thing.
I summarized the entire story of Dahai, but pretty much the nature of these write-ups means that I kind of cannot touch much on the other stories, though I have already mentioned San’er. He is kind of a wanderer who uses…erm…unsavory methods to make money in various places around China to send to his wary wife and his mother in some run-down town across from the city of Chongqing.
There is Xiaoyu (played by Zhao Tao, frequent collaborator and wife of Jia), a spa receptionist in Yuanshan whose married lover wants her to run off with him to Guangzhou.
Finally, there is Xiaohui, a young man from Hunan who goes from Guangzhou to Dongguan in search for paying work.
The characters are connected, though only tenuously. More importantly, though, their stories seem to be in conversation with each other.
Oh, and before I go further, here is my attempt to note down the locations in the four storylines. The ones in blue are the ones that we see the characters go to while the ones in red are the ones that are merely mentioned. No, I didn’t get the locations exactly correct, and the text is smaller than I had expected, but you get the idea.
As you can, see, there is some location overlap. Additionally, the movie does not explore northeast China or anywhere in the west. Perhaps Jia wanted to focus on the regions of the country with the highest population density. Still, even if it does not cover the entirety of the country, it covers a large area.
One thing that I noticed is how different locations are thought of by different people. Of all of the main characters, Dahai is the closest one to Beijing. But he cannot just go there. Meanwhile, Hong Kong may as well be an alien planet. Xiaoyu’s married lover Youliang tries to act like going to Guangzhou is an opportunity for freedom. Perhaps it is for them. For Xiaohui, it is just a place for soul-crushing labor, with Youliang as his heartless overseer. Xiaohui does get to see people from Hong Kong, as Dongguan is right next door, but they still might as well be from an alien planet. Also, there is a brief shot of a few workers from…I am not sure where. They don’t get a story, but it shows that the struggle of migrant workers in China is not exclusive to Chinese people.
These characters may be victims of exploitation and neglect, though they are not without faults or questionable decisions. Why couldn’t Dahai be more tactical in his righteousness? Why does San’er keep doing this? Why couldn’t Xiaoyu just leave it alone? Why didn’t Xiaohui just put down the phone and keep his mouth shut all day like a perfect little submissive peasant? Jia is not saying that the characters are right for their actions, just that their actions could probably have been predicted due to the unacceptable nature of the status quo.
Yet, we see that many do accept both the status quo. Dahai himself seems to be unmoved by the fatality by the truck. At most, he is mildly curious by such a horrid scene. On the other hand, no one seems to stand with him as he tries to stand up for his village. No one seems concerned with the money that they are owed. No one intervenes when Dahai is getting beaten. No one seems concerned about Dahai’s getting beat down. At best there is pity, at worst there is amusement, but there is mostly apathetic notice of the noise. That is not the only time that someone tries to stand up for others and gets beaten for it. Another man tries and gets set upon by goons. His coworkers seemed concerned and initially try to intervene…and then they don’t. Either they are too scared to risk getting targeted by the powers that be, too cynical to even consider such impractical foolishness, or genuinely against such rabble rousing.
No one can expect help from others, and no one’s offer of help will be trusted. There is even a commentary on social media engagement, which is how some of these stories became famous enough to get Jia’s attention. Looking at a story of government corruption and another about a fatal accident, characters feel like they should contribute to the discourse, but they end up saying nothing other than “WTF” to both stories. Utterly meaningless. Nothing will change. Nothing really matters. Anyone can see. Well, not anyone in China except for those who have VPN or possession of a pirated copy, because the Chinese Communist Party banned this movie.
Liu tells Dahai that the village commission needed to keep its word to Jiao, who has a high payday because he is a hard worker. What about keeping its word to the villagers? Do they not also work hard? Those questions don’t matter. The villagers of Wujinshan should be happy that one of them became so successful, even if it was through stepping on their backs, stepping over them, and then stepping on board his private plane so that he can fly away. They are expected to ignore that they are being ripped off and, instead, be grateful for the opportunity to debase themselves at the feet of the wealthy in order to be graced with a small portion of the money that they should have already had anyways. Really, it is Dahai’s who is at fault for causing trouble.
While Jia may see Dahai’s righteous rage as unproductive at best, he does show contempt for the exploitative rich and ambivalence towards those who have no. When Jiao arrives from Hong Kong, he is treated to the full red carpet by people who are doing this in exchange for flour. It is as if he is the president or something. A sequence similar to this takes place in a high-end hotel/brothel that caters to wealthy men from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In what could be a bizarre commentary on Mainland China’s sense of possession over Hong Kong and Taiwan, the “distinguished guests” are treated to this display of Chinese nationalism from the establishment’s sex workers.
Violence itself seems to be largely accepted by the masses, as long as the masses can avoid becoming victims. The higher ups put workers in situations where they are pit against each other and, thus, view each other as the enemy as opposed to the higher ups. A group of frustrated men break out into a brawl and those uninvolved just try to stay out of the way. In fact, it seems like there is only one instance where a fatality elicits a horrified scream, and that is most likely because the person screaming was a friend of the victim. Everyone else just gets out of the way, gazes uncaringly at the violence, or carries on in ignorance. No one steps in. Only the police come to maybe arrest someone, if they can. There is one scene where a character confronts another, with the expectation of enacting vengeance. The surprising act of mercy is perhaps even more painful than a beatdown could ever be.
There are so many other things that I could talk about. Many others have discussed stuff about dialects, food, the treatment of animals, religion, and a bunch of other things. But I have already been babbling on about things that I know nothing about, so I will stop here. This may not necessarily be the most representative Jia Zhingke film, but if you are okay with violence, then this might be a good entry point, as well as being a good movie.
WTF ASIA 216: Night in Paradise (South Korea: 2020, approx. 132 minutes)
WTF ASIA 217: Talaash – The Answer Lies Within (India: 2012, approx. 140-141 minutes)
Available in Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and perhaps a few other countries. I prefer the Amazon version to the Netflix version, if only for not cutting out the few seconds of intermission.