Judge Brendan Babish participated in a ménage-a-quatre once, in college. That is, if you count staring through a pair of binoculars into the dorm room across the street as participating.
A tragicomic ménage-a-quatre that left the Chinese censors blazing.
Writer/director Yu Li is only 34 years old, but Lost in Beijing is her third feature film. That's impressive, but more importantly, this movie shows her to be one of the most talented contemporary filmmakers to come out of Asia. But for those of you who find foreign films dull, the most enticing feature might be the ménage-a-quatre (or, perhaps more accurately, love square) at the center of the movie. In fact, this film is tawdry enough that it was not only banned in China (in mid-run, no less), but the producers have been banned from making any films in that country for the next two years.
Lost in Beijing is the story of Ping Guo (Fan Bingbing), who lives in a cramped apartment with her lackadaisical, window washer husband, An Kun (Tony Dawei), and works as a massage girl in a parlor owned and operated by the surly Lin (Tony Leong). One afternoon, Lin rapes Ping Guo; An Kun just happens to be washing the window outside the room takes place in. Of course, he's enraged when he sees what is happening to his wife, but instead of violent redress, he attempts to blackmail Lin. Lin, however, refuses to meet the younger man's demands. Then things start getting weird, when Pin Guo realizes she's pregnant.
Lost in Beijing should be interesting for American audiences not only because it's a compelling and emotionally resonant film, which is certainly is, but because of its setting. China is now one of the most dynamic countries in the world, and yet traditionally the country has not had filmmakers with the experience or budget to evocatively convey the country or the culture. Now, I am far from qualified to judge how representative Lost in Beijing is of China or Beijing, for that matter, but the canvas the city provides and the several contrasts residing within are certainly intriguing.
In the beginning of the film we see Ping Guo working in a massage parlor that seems both like a legitimate business and still incredibly unseemly. When Ping Guo leaves work, she returns to a cramped and rundown apartment, which contrasts sharply with the glittering high-rises that populate the city's downtown. Within that cramped apartment, Ping Guo's friend Xiao Mei (Meihuizi Zeng) shows off her new, high-tech cell phone.
Of course, these contrasts wouldn't mean much if the story wasn't interesting. But the interplay between Ping Guo and An Kun, as well as between Lin and his wife Wang Mei (Elaine Jin), are all compelling. What is especially noteworthy is the complexity within these characters: An Kun loves his wife, but can be harsh and abusive; Lin runs an exploitative business and molests one of his employees, yet is also sensitive and allows himself to be bullied by his wife; and Wang Mei may be married to a rich, chauvinistic jerk, but she proves to probably one of the wisest and strongest-willed characters in the movie.
Then in the middle of all this is Ping Guo. Though she is sweet, she is hardly an innocent. One of the most intriguing decisions in the film is to show her possibly enjoying the rape and later her mixed feelings towards Lin. Is this due to dissatisfaction in her marriage, an overactive sexuality, or some other option? Teasing out what motivates these characters gives Lost in Beijing a depth matches by few films, foreign or domestic.
With two marriages stretched to the emotional breaking point and the fate of a child hanging in the balance, Lost in Beijing has an emotional resonance—and, let's face it, tawdriness—matched by few others as well.
The DVD, released by New Yorker Video, is devoid of extras, though it does include a booklet that features an interview with Yu Li. However, the picture and sound are both strong; the film's shots of Beijing, a megacity in the midst of growing pains, are especially stunning. Not guilty, except in the eyes of Chinese censors.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Booklet Interview with Li Yu
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