American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"May you live in interesting times" is the familiar Chinese saying, usually spat out as a curse. You can see why in "A Touch of Sin," a film by renowned director Jia Zhang-ke. That kind of time is now, in the history of his country. With four vignettes inspired by real-life "ripped from the headline" events, he shows what the great economic expansion of China is doing to the majority of its people. It's not a pretty picture, but it's a compelling one.
The four stories track a furious miner who goes on a rampage against a company head, a migrant worker who returns home for his mom's 70th birthday, a young kid from the provinces who can only find work in an exploitative factory or a brothel, and a massage parlor receptionist (played by Zhao Tao, the director's real-life wife). Jia's view is of a country with corrupt managers and government officials. It also points up the undeniable income disparity topping even that of the U.S. Still, the displaced and marginalized traverse the country, trying to get some piece of the pie. Or some job.
Worse yet, greed has trickled down to everyone. One of the nastiest ironies is that Dahai, the miner played by Jian Wu, gets a tongue-lashing for his idealism by a character reminding him that at least the executive has made it into upper ranks, and out of their village. Dahai tries to fight some injustices, such as the mine owner failing to honor his promise to share some profits with his workers. Nothing doing, though, so when the embezzler visits in his private jet, Dahai goes bonkers with a gun. In perhaps the most memorable sequence, the docile-seeming receptionist (Tao) is set upon by a patron of the "sauna" where she works. He literally beats her up with money trying to force her into another job description: a masseuse/hooker. Finally, she turns the tables, brandishing a knife in a way to best any kung fu master.
Signature strokes of a great filmmaker come through even in a "message" movie. Startling images shot in high definition digital show the old agrarian China smashed up against the new. A horse pulling a cart without a driver goes the wrong way down a highway. Bulls peer placidly at the urban scene. But you have to know a bit about China, which most of us don't, to get that the four stories are set in different parts of this huge country: a cross-section is implied. One is clearly in the north, though, as we can figure from the snow, and characters often chat about where they are from, or guess each other's dialects. It's a world in flux.