Though this film mostly takes place in Fenyang, the city where Jia Zhangke grew up and which featured in films like 'Xiao Wu', 'Platform' and 'Unknown Pleasures', the Chinese writer-director is clearly trying to do something new here. It’s in three parts: the first, set at the turn of the millennium, concerns a woman (Jia’s wife and muse Zhao Tao) forced to decide between two admirers; the second, set in 2014, shows her divorced and depicts her encounters with the man she rejected and her estranged son; and the third, set in Australia in 2025, focuses on the son’s relationship with his father and an older woman who is herself a Chinese ex-pat. The visual style changes a little in each part: the screen shape broadens from the near-square Academy ratio to wider and then on to Scope, while the compositions progress from a slightly experimental lyricism to something more precise.
Thematically, however, we are in fairly familiar territory, with the personal stories of Tao, her capitalist husband Jinsheng, the coal-miner Liang, and her son Dollar serving to reflect social, economic and cultural changes in Chinese life over a quarter-century. Though Jia handles the first two parts with his customary assurance, when the story shifts to Australia – and the English language – the film feels less sure of itself. The performances are weaker, the accents sound too American, and the depiction of how things will be ten years from now is only partly successful: the digital technology rings true, but a dated car and a slightly contrived scene involving a visit to a travel agent feel wrong, as indeed does a final brief glimpse of Tao’s lifestyle.
That said, Jia undoubtedly remains a major filmmaker, and the film is never less than bold and ambitious. If the last of its three parts falters here and there, it is at the very least an intelligent and intriguing meditation on issues concerning what it means to be Chinese in today’s and tomorrow’s world.