Breaking points

New films from China teem with 21st century angst

Explosive: Dahai (Jiang Wu) grabs a snack before fighting corruption in A Touch of Sin.

FILM Happy New Year, cinema fans: a pair of new films from highly acclaimed Chinese directors open this week, Chen Kaige's Caught in the Web and Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin. Both films are set in contemporary, conspicuously capitalist China, and concern ordinary people who are suddenly caught up in circumstances that are, for the most part, beyond their control. Their reactions are as extreme (violent, vindictive, irreversible) as they are revealing about the environments in which they take place, as limits are pushed, lives are ruined, and anger and despair erupt into brutal actions.

Though Chen — a Palme d'Or winner for 1993's Farewell My Concubine — is a member of China's aging "Fifth Generation" of filmmakers (Jia is, of course, one of the Sixth Generation's top talents), his film addresses a youthful topic: the destructive power of the Internet. Executive secretary Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan, star of 2009's City of Life and Death) is a workaholic, with a posh yet empty life to show for it. An unexpectedly grim medical diagnosis shocks her into a kind of "fuck all y'all" fugue state, and when an old man boards her crowded bus, she flatly refuses to give up her seat. A heated argument follows.

Normally, an encounter like that — a familiar scenario to anyone who's ever ridden public transit, particularly the 22 Fillmore — would pass unnoticed. But a cell phone camera clutched in the hands of nerdy-glasses-wearing wannabe journalist Yang Jiaqi (Wang Luodan) captures the whole thing; once ruthlessly ambitious producer Chen Ruoxi (Yao Chen) gets ahold of it, Ye Lanqiu's rudeness goes viral, and a Reddit-esque smear campaign ensues. (This is in-joke casting, since actress Yao Chen is known as a social-media sensation in real life, with 52 million followers on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.)

As the "Sunglasses Girl" video becomes a sensation, it affects all who are in its orbit, including Ye's sleazy boss (Wang Xueqi) and his materialistic Real Housewife of a spouse (Chen Hong); Ruoxi's boyfriend, photographer Yang Shoucheng (Mark Chao), who happens to be Jiaqi's cousin; and, obviously, Ye, who goes into hiding before embarking on a Last Holiday-meets-The Bucket List spree. (Why do dying people in movies always want to skydive or bungee jump?) After two solid hours, every relationship in the film has been tested, if not ripped to shreds, and Caught in the Web has proven engaging enough to make the film's biggest plot hole — why doesn't Ye seize the power of the Internet to school all the haters on what motivated her behavior? — excusable. And despite the unavoidable fate of its main character, Caught in the Web ends on a note of hope, suggesting that there's a reset button for almost everyone, even a Real Housewife.

A Touch of Sin, which is set in bleak factory towns and along dusty highways, in stark contrast to Caught in the Web's glossy cityscapes, offers no such redemption. Last year, it won Best Screenplay at Cannes and played multiple festivals; lately, it's popped up on several prestigious "Best of 2013" lists (Sight & Sound ranked it number six; Cahiers du Cinéma ranked it fifth). If I'd gotten to see it before my deadline, it might have shaken up my own list. Jia (2004's The World) is said to have based his screenplay on actual incidents, and also drew inspiration — as the title suggests — from King Hu's martial arts epic A Touch of Zen (1971).

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