This film is listed as a black comedy, and while true in theory, it isn't all that funny really. It's more of a critique on the Chinese government, and it's paranoia, which should explain the film's popularity. If that's enough to whet your appetite The Black Cannon Incident is sufficient, other than that it's a rather disappointing film.
Zhao is a very capable German-Chinese translator who plays chess in his spare time. After losing a piece, he contacts the hotel he last stayed at, hoping he can still retrieve it. The telegram is somewhat cryptic and Zhao is put under investigation. A new translator is assigned to Zhao's clients, but he barely speaks German.
The dry cinematography and low-energy performances, mixed with the critical undertone and industrialized setting make this film a precursor to Jia's work, so in that sense the film has earned its reputation. I'm not the biggest Jia fan though and the rather plain execution makes it a chore to sit through, much like Jia's older work. Disappointing.