The film is sort of split into four stories.
The first one is about a man who lives in a village and is looking for revenge on the elected officials of the village for corruption and fraud. He has no money but sees them using the funds which were raised by the selling of village resources to buy jet planes and live the life of luxury. We follow him as his anger grows and finally erupts into a plethora of revenge.
In the second, we follow a man who is discontent with the boring life in his village, his boring marriage and nothing ever happening, so he regularly hits the road to try and find excitement and danger. This often ends up in acts of violence towards those who cross him, but also even those who don't! He's happy to commit violence against those who have wealth as a reaction to his poverty and boredom.
The third part is about a woman who is involved with a married man. She wants him to leave his wife and start a new life with him. He's not so sure and there is anxiety between them on the topic which leads to an ultimatum being served by her and a resulting act of violence which comes from a rather unexpected source.
Lastly there's a young man working in a factory who is larking about one day. As a result of this, his co-worker cuts his hand badly and needs two weeks off. His boss says that it is the young man's fault and so he must pay the injured party his wages for the time he can't work. So our character does a bunk, leaves town and heads for new employment elsewhere. He takes a job in a hotel where around him clients are paying for sex with the 'massage girls' who have been recruited in large numbers. He can't stand this for long so takes a job in another factory which ultimately leads to more violence.
It's hard to get to the bottom of what's really being said here by the film's creator Jia Zhangke but I think it's about inequality, social status, unfairness of the system and a dramatisation of what lengths he thinks people might be willing to go to, to fix this. Or at least bring comfort to themselves within a hard poverty-driven environment where nothing is fair and most of it corrupt or immoral.
There's a warning on Film4 ahead of the screening about violence towards animals and sure enough, there are two or three scenes where this is depicted graphically. The incidents looked very much like they were actually filmed as-is, unlike the violence between humans, but maybe (I hope that) I'm wrong and it was just filming techniques. We know how actors act and special effects work, but maybe we're not so sure how much protection animals get in various countries around the world, making these scenes the most harrowing of the film. From what I read, the film seems to have been banned from release in China, probably for a combination of the above.
The photography is excellent throughout with dramatic sweeping long-focus but also deeply intrusive close-ups. And an intelligent mix of the two. This feels very much like a arthouse film beautifully produced. I have to admit to not knowing any of the actors involved, all of whom seem very experienced in the Chinese film scene. None of them put a foot wrong and executed their characters admirably. The stars of the show seem to have been Wu Jiang, Baoqiang Wang and Tao Zhao.
It's compelling viewing that I'm not sure that I would recommend really. There is so much to admire about lots of it, but also much which is disturbing and on the face of it maybe didn't need filming. I'm pleased that I have seen it however, and it will certainly encourage me to seek out more Chinese films.