Dir: Chen Kaige. China. 2012. 120mins


A surprisingly refreshing departure for one of China’s leading Fifth Generation filmmakers, better identified with period pieces, this is a slick, contemporary, fast-moving, updated look showing present-day China at grips with its own mind-boggling social, economic and technological upheavals. A cinematic tour de force in every respect, Che Kaige’s complex, multi-layered story looks for a while like a satirical take on the misuse of new fancy gadgetry to deprive individuals of their last shred of privacy and ends on an introspective tone, suggesting there is no use blaming the gadgets, but the people behind them. A valid morale, as true in China as it is everywhere else.

Gloriously shot and expertly edited, looking like a rapidly revolving kaleidoscope of landscapes and characters, with a brilliant trio of actresses.

Adapted from a novel which, by Chen’s own admission, had its dark elements toned down a notch for the film, the film has a large cast of characters. These include an executive secretary, stylish and elegant Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan), who, upon being told she has lymphatic cancer and needs urgent surgery, is first despondent and then decides she has to experience everything life has to offer before it is too late, along with career-crazy TV editor Chen Ruoxi (Yao Chen) who gets hold of a piece of embarrassing footage involving Ye and puts it on the air, unleashing a furious storm of violent, personally invasive internet reactions against the rude, disrespectful young woman.

And there is Ye’s boss, Shen Liushu (Wang Shueqi), a cynical, arrogant, nouveau riche businessman, for whom nothing is more important in life than success, money and the power that goes with it;  Shen’s wife, Mo Xiaoyu (played by Chen Hong, the film’s producer and the wife of director Chen Kaige) a scheming, spoiled silly and in love with her credit cards, who suspects her husband of having an affair with the secretary, and Yang Shoucheng (Mark Chao), who used to shoot films at weddings but got fired for revealing his boss is cheating on his clients.

And there are secondary figures galore coming in and out of the woodwork, as the film gallops relentlessly forward to unveil an entirely new aspect of Chinese society, officially still classless and governed by the Communist dogma, but in reality devoured by greed, ambition and deceit, a society in which the rich are getting richer and the poor who think they can have a piece of the pie as well, are roundly put in their place.

The once controlled media is now gone wild, the internet is breaking down the walls of intimacy while rewriting all the rules of social intercourse and  every mobile telephone, when it is not ringing to bring bad news, is a prying eye threatening to tell the world about you, whether you like it or not.

In a stunning display of technical prowess, Chen Kaige has shot his film on streets lined with shining new skyscrapers, had his production designers build and colourfully decorate flashy, luxurious interiors contrasting them with the cramped, crowded lodgings of the less fortunate. Towards the end he takes his camera out into the country side and indulges in a brief but moving poetic romp.  Given the large number of characters he has to deal with, he not only manages to endow each one with his own personal identity but deftly juggles all the parallel plots they are involved in, keeping them intelligible, on condition the viewer is alert and pays attention all the time.

Gloriously shot and expertly edited, looking like a rapidly revolving kaleidoscope of landscapes and characters, with a brilliant trio of actresses, Chen Hong, Gao Yuanyuan and Yao Chen carrying the more complex acting chores, this picture reveals a bright sand shining new director China can be proud of.

Production companies: New Classics Media Corporation

International Sales: Moonstone Entertainment, www.moonstonefilms.com

Producer: Chen Hong

Executive Producers: Cao Huay, Chen Hong, Wang Ziwen

Screenplay: Chen Kaige, Tang Damian

Cinematography: Yang Shu

Editor: Li Dianshi

Production designer: Gao Yiguang, Tu Nan

Music: Meng Ke, Ma Shangyou

Main cast: Gao Yuanyuan, Wang Xueqi, Chen Hong, Yao Chen, May Wang, Mark Chao, Chen Ran, Zhang Ti