Unfortunately, the preface for Lost in Beijing is always going to be the weary tale of censorship. Once again the Film Bureau acts as a promotional tool for the film industry. Censorship in China is coming very close to seeming like a joke as directors and producers get censored and banned over and over again. Of course it is no joke for the individuals involved and the over bearing bureaucracy that they have to face to work in their home country. Lost in Beijing's story starts at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival when director Li Yu and producer Fang Li screened the film without making the cuts that the Chinese Film Bureau insisted upon. I'm sure the Film Bureau was already pissed, but when the film was released in China late last year (with cuts) extra footage leaked online and that was it for Lost in Beijing. The Film Bureau (aka SARFT State Administration of Radio Film and TV) also had the arsenal of a recent notice banning pornographic films (those that contain "rape, prostitution, and explicit sex") from competing in festivals. Lost in Beijing was pulled from screens and producer Fang Li (also 'banned' for Luo Ye's Summer Palace) was slapped with a two year ban.
This story is interesting enough that I myself couldn't help recounting it, but ultimately it detracts from what is a very solid film for a director that seems to have found her stride. Li Yu started her career with the daring but painfully low budget Fish and Elephant. I got quite a bit of notice internationally and even had a screening here in the Twin Cities. Li took her modest success to make a more assured second feature Dam Street which made the rounds with the Global Lens series last year. Where Dam Street felt like a film I had seen before, Lost in Beijing seems wholly original.
The story, although not worth talking up, is at the very least interesting enough to build a good space for the characters. Focusing on two couples, one young and poor the other middle-aged and wealthy, whose lives become physically and emotionally entangled. Lin Dong, played by the highly underrated Tony Leung Ka Fai (the lesser known Tony), owns a massage parlor where men come to socialize get foot massages and probably more. Lin represents a generation of urban Chinese entrepreneurs who flourished under the economic changes by Deng Xiaoping. He maintains a sort of belief system of a traditional Chinese man, but also rewards his success by living lavishly. Lin's wife, played by the beautiful and matronly Elaine Jin, practices a form of traditional Chinese medicine called cupping. Although she is the perfect companion to Lin, the spark of their marriage, if there ever was one, is long gone.
Young husband and wife An Kun and Liu Ping Guo couldn't be more opposite. Very much in love but living from paycheck to paycheck in their small apartment. Part of the mass migration from country to city, they have come to Beijing in search of more opportunity. Carefree and cynical they carry on day to day with few goals or aspirations. Ping Guo works in Lin's massage parlor strictly giving foot massages. Knowing that her boss and most her clients like her because she is young and beautiful, she keeps her marriage a secret a work. An Kun works as a glass cleaner on the skyscrapers that that dot the Beijing landscape. One day after Ping Guo has had too much to drink, Lin takes advantage of her and has sex with her. Each person will, as a result, deal with the consequences of this tryst in their own very individual way.
In an article that Peter Hessler wrote for the New Yorker a few months back about the boom of the driving industry, he poignantly explained how 'rapid change' has become an empty buzz phrase to describe China, but it does nothing to describe the sort of creative adaptability that the people in China have had to learn. The world as it is today may not be the world that is it tomorrow. Lost in Beijing is certainly not this first Chinese film to have this as an underlying psychological theme, but it does so in a way that is neither heavy handed nor overly sentimental. The relationships in this story are as convoluted as the emotions that they are forced to deal with. Without a doubt, this is Ping Guo's story. (She is also the namesake of the Chinese tile of the film, Ping Guo, which also means apple.) She is the mean from which the others react and expose themselves as not only adaptive but conflicted. Fan Bing-Bing plays Ping Guo innocent without being stupid, and with maturity mixed with a very human amount of self-doubt.
What really makes this film shine are the amazing street scenes of Beijing. Working with cinematographer Yu Wang, who worked on Luo Ye's Suzhou River and Purple Butterfly as well as Zhang Yang's Quitting, Li Yu weaves together some brilliant tracking shot of the characters with unobtrusive documentary footage of the city. After triumphantly stealing the Mercedes emblem from the front of Lin's car, An Kun bikes away without a care in the world, and the tracking shot makes him seem like he's floating. The shots of the new construction and the new city contrasted with the old city exists as a context that the characters inhabit without subtext or judgement. And contrary to what censors may say, I think it makes Beijing look beautiful. It is the bright exterior that dominates the film that lightens what could have been a very oppressive film.