The film is set in Fenyang, a northern coal mining city and the director's hometown. In 1999, at the eve of the new millennium, eighteen year old Tao (played by the director's wife Tao Zhao) has to choose between two suitors: the honest but ordinary coal miner Liangzi and the flashy bragger Zhang. She sees right through Zhang's bravado, but can't resist the promise of a better life, symbolized by his red Volkswagen, 'perfect for the next century'. Liangzi feels humiliated and leaves town.
Fifteen years later, Tao is well-off, but divorced and unhappy. Her seven year old son is living the good life with his father in Shanghai. Liangzi, in the mean time, is terribly ill and returns to Fenyang. Filled with remorse, Tao helps him financially but doesn't seem to be able to relate to him on an emotional basis.
Flash-forward another ten years into the future, and Tao's son is living with his father in Australia. He had to leave China, it turns out, because of anti-corruption campaigns. The boy is a spoilt and clueless brat, who refuses to speak Chinese to his father, but finds some emotional warmth with his Chinese teacher.
The first two parts of the film are excellent. Tao's moral choices, the contrast between progress and tradition, the power of money - it's all shown in a beautiful heartfelt way. The director anchors the story with recurring images, like a tall pagoda on the banks of the Yellow River, and spices it with small symbolic items like dumplings and keys. An interesting feature is the changing aspect ratio: in the first episode the screen is almost square, and it widens until it is widescreen in the last episode. Another feature is the way dialogues are filmed: repeatedly the director frames only one participant. And a third peculiarity are some high-impact scenes without a clear meaning or function in the story: a crashing military plane, a coal truck losing some of its cargo, a nervous caged tiger.
The sad thing about this movie is that the third part is very different from the first two parts, and lacks the quality of it. Not only are we introduced to different protagonists, also in this part the dialogue and acting are clumsy and unnatural, the story lacks focus and the scenes seem pointless. It's as if the director loses his golden touch when the story leaves China.
Still, in this last episode, the message is hammered home: the strive for material wealth leads to emotional poverty.