I loved this film. I saw it alone (my first cinema visit alone I am ashamed to confess) at the Barbican. It was showing as part of their Fall season City Visions, and a nice contrast with the photo exhibit which I had seen earlier, constructing worlds. I left the theater full of it, a feeling that its violence lurked in the brutalist cityscape around me and within me as I walked to the station and I could not stop thinking of it on the tube back to Brixton. The woman who introduced this film mentioned its nods to Tarantino, but I did not feel that this was the violence of a teenage boy who thinks it’s bad ass, Zhangke’s is a compassionate gaze that does not shrink from the worst within us but with a greater focus on that inflicted by the structures and environments of our world. It consists of four separate stories of violence, linked by a background character or association, though the end circles back upon itself. It opens with the unique brand of gangster capitalism, the current accumulation by dispossession taking place in China that is removing collective assets and enriching a fraction of the people which forms the backdrop to every violent act, is itself the most pervasive form of violence. The rule and power of money. Looking upon the landscapes in the film are like facing this reality in material form, extraordinary speculative buildings that become ruins before their completion, huge industrial works that loom against the sky, the equally large scale of working class housing and its poverty are everywhere. It made me start to think through the way this structural and spatial violence are intertwined with the potentialities that always lurk within ourselves for snapping, for killing others.
This is presented with great complexity I think, despite the often obvious symbolism — the boy and girl with the internet handles ‘little bird’ and ‘fish seeking water’. The sauna receptionist being beaten with a wad of money, the men simultaneously signalling their insecurity by claiming she is acting above them yet at the same time demanding the rights their money buys them in a brothel. The later scenes of the ‘nightclub’ where the girls march in ranks through the reception area dressed in skimpy red army uniforms. The scene of traditional Chinese theater set up in the street in the village where the first story takes place that is commentating on recent events — as it did in the first story — and asking the final question, ‘do you understand your sin?’ They are almost playful and never felt heavy, thrown in and then undermined and yet surfacing again as a truth. I didn’t feel that there were any easy equations here, violence erupts from the boredom of village life (though the backdrop is still the great towers of city life in the far distance — or near distance depending on what the air quality is) as much as it does from the city itself, and any degradation it creates. That is the character so often played by the city in film, it was refreshing not to see it here.
The whole is open to widely different interpretations I think, depending on the politics you bring to bear on it. Possibly I might feel different after another viewing (I would like another viewing), or if I were more familar with the politics of China or able to catch the multiple cultural references that I am sure I missed given my ignorance. But I loved the first story, the acting out of that fantasy that many of us share of just shooting the hell out of those people in power fucking you over, and their sorry henchmen just following orders and facilitating their takeover. Their wives, well, that might have been a bit overboard. Dohai is fighting back, but all alone in his anger at the stripping of all assets and power from the people of his village and their concentration in the hands of an old school fellow. And alone he compulsively names it, pushes it, fights to stop it. He is the only one to ever really have a smile on his face. He lays bares his oppression and he shoots it, knowing that he does so. The others do not have this consciousness, only varying degrees of stubborn resistance that erupts almost in spite of themselves — though arguably the second figure was just psychotic and bored. Which I liked. The ambiguity I liked, and so I choose to find the framing in that first story.
One final thought. To the ignorance of Western eyes this was a series of amazing landscapes — I am unsure how much of a spectacle this presents to those from China. But what I loved most was how much it showed of work, of everyday life. Nothing here was slick, glamourised. And this focus on work, on interiors as much as exteriors and the ways that people occupied them underlined for me the strange way that we are all connected through this capitalist system of exploitation and brutality. The girl playing on her tablet between johns, the boy who is crushing on her will go on to work in a factory making electrical components for just such devices. Just as his story opens with his work in a garment factory, sewing our clothes. I am surrounded by objects created in workplaces like those I watched this evening, in the streets I walk among people who have fled these realities to seek a better life, and it shames me just a little that I do not know more of this world. That final question, ‘do you understand your sin?’ It applies to us as well, the western viewers no less than Chinese, the consumers of this industry and this labour. We in the UK or the US are also a part of the structural violence, and often victim to it though the ways in which we are enmeshed in it are different. And offer a qualitatively better way of life, as we benefit from low wages producing cheap goods. And finally, we too, as human beings, are as capable of breaking.