After recently seeing Li Yu's 2005 film Dam Street, I was eager to see her third and most recent effort, Lost in Beijing. Now that I have, I have mixed feelings about it. A case of my expectations being too high, or of the film falling short?
Set in contemporary China, Lost in Beijing follows two couples whose lives become hopelessly intertwined following a drunken come-on, a forceful acceptance, and a tragically coincidental discovery. Small-town girl Ping-guo (Fan Bingbing) works in a massage parlor. Her boss, Dong (Tony Leung Ka Fai), likes to flash his cash and push the girls around, but more often than not thinks with his little head rather than his big one. He doesn't know that Ping-guo is married, and so he doesn't expect any consequences when he finds her so inebriated that she mistakes him for her husband and makes advances toward him. He keeps going even after she realizes her error and insists he stop, but is soon interrupted by her husband, An-kun (Tong Da Wei), a window washer that just happens to be outside Dong's office at the right time. In retaliation, An-kun engages in petty acts of vandalism and demands cash for his pain and suffering. He also starts having a revenge affair with Dong's bored wife, Wang Mei (Elaine Jin).
The little love quartet is rocked by the news that Ping-guo is pregnant, and the greedy and opportunistic An-kun sees a chance for a bigger payday. He strikes a deal with Dong: if the baby is Dong's, he will pay a large sum to take it from the young couple and raise it; if it's not his, they will go on their merry way, no harm and no foul. From there, things get even more complicated, as roles reverse and the spouses pretty much swap. The infant brings out the familial instincts in Dong and Ping-guo and the mercenary instincts in An-Kun and Wang Mei.
There is pathos to spare in the set-up for Lost in Beijing, and had Li Yu been content with making a serious picture about the shifting emotions and allegiances of these four people, it would have been a much better film. Unfortunately, as the narrative plays out, there is always something just a little bit off. Start, for instance, with the fact that Dong rapes Ping-guo, and the easy way this is glossed over. An-kun even arguably rapes her later to punish her. Go from there to the fact that Li Yu and her co-writer and co-producer Fang Li keep trying to inject satirical elements into the story, and Lost in Beijing never managed to sit quite right with me. Maybe had the satire been more evident earlier, and maybe had that satire been better, I'd be more open to what the filmmakers have to say. Unfortunately, these comic notes never find the right pitch.
In fact, the only participant that seems to realize he is ever in a comedy is Tony Leung Ka Fai. The actor, who may be known to some American viewers from The Lover and Johnny To's Election, creates a fully formed portrayal of a man whose conspicuous displays of wealth and power are silly in their falseness, and he is able to use the fašade for both comedic effect and to add a twinge of heartbreak to the dramatic changes that Dong will go through. It's not that the other actors are bad in the film--though Elaine Jin is a little flat--it's just that they don't seem to be tuned in with the muddled point of view. Fan Bingbing's performance as Ping-guo is excellent, and it's impossible not to have your heart go out to her as her husband's manipulations begin to swallow her whole, but not even she can prevent her honesty from chafing next to the director's stabs at black humor.
I get that the overall theme of Lost in Beijing is that modern life and the trappings of wealth ultimately corrupt. Just in case we might miss it, Li Yu even gives us another character, the downward spiraling Xiao Mei (Zeng Meihuzi), to show us how an innocent can be lured in by temptation and suffer the ultimate consequence for it. All of the elements for this theme are there, from Dong's showy jewelry to An-Kun making a rickety house out of stacks of cash, but I think what is ultimately lacking is empathy for the characters. By attempting to turn their lives into parody, Li Yu stops caring about them on their level and starts to act like she's smarter than they are.
I still liked Lost in Beijing. The central story is very good, and the situations the characters find themselves in have too much natural drama for a competent filmmaker like Li Yu to miss it completely. I also loved the cinema verite camerawork of Wang Yu when he went out on the streets and shot the life and scenery to be found there without any staging. In the end, though, I wanted the clear thinking of Dam Street to be applied to more polished filmmaking, and so it was hard to accept that Li Yu's vision had grown cloudy instead.