“Lost in Beijing”: A Review
by Maymay Liu
Lost in Beijing opens with a vision of scuffed jeans and a pink sweatshirt - the camera follows the footsteps of a young girl winding her way through the lobby of a second-rate hotel. The air feels dingy, heavy with cigarette smoke, though the light glances almost jauntily off her dangling teddy bear earrings. Upstairs, she opens the door to one of the hotel’s rooms and immediately strips off her top, nattering about having already taken a shower to the middle-aged man who waits inside. Apparently, they’ll have to make it a quick one because she has dinner plans with her friends. The man responds in a curt Beijing accent, “I can’t make love in a hurry,” and begins to pick up his jewelry, neatly placed on the cracked bureau. The prostitute leaves, sulking.
Director Li Yu creates contemporary Beijing as a world of beauty and ugly contradictions; for a man who is “unable to make love in a hurry,” Lin Dong, the proprietor of the Golden Basin Massage Parlor, is hurried enough when raping Pingguo, a young masseuse working for him. Hard as it may be to believe at this point, this is not to say that Lin Dong is the film’s villain, though his polished appearance and city mannerisms do quickly collapse to reveal less glamorous roots. As the movie goes on, the characters become increasingly difficult to place in the traditional roles of protagonist, antagonist and, as a viewer, I found myself torn as to where my own sympathies and personal investment lay. This personal confusion intrigued me, because the story has relatively simple lines: Lin Dong rapes Pingguo, she discovers she is pregnant, Pingguo’s husband and her would-be-lover fight over rights to the child. At its very core, Lost in Beijing is about a love triangle (or, at least, some sort of love shape that starts off as a triangle); a snarl consisting of Lin Dong, Pingguo, and their respective spouses, Wang Mei and An-kun, that eventually ends in the ruin of both marriages. In carefully constructing - and deconstructing - these relationships and their chaotic origins, Li Yu creates emotional depth to what initially seems like a cheap, base world where everything is fuelled by greed and selfishness. The boundaries that define concepts like love and morality are tossed and shaken like so many plastic bags in the city’s dusty wind.
Pingguo’s rape is a catalyst for the film’s numerous little plot twists and precipitates a rapid unraveling of probability. Bizarrely, An-kun, who works as a window cleaner, just happens to be on the other side of the glass and sees Lin Dong forcing himself on Pingguo. Furious, An-kun attacks Lin Dong, and is subsequently dragged out by security guards. Lost in Beijing is ripe with raw emotion; here, Li Yu lets the violence seep into the next scene in a horrifying way when, later that day, in the tiny closet-like room that serves as their home, An-kun angrily thrusts himself into Pingguo, repeatedly muttering, “Is this how he fucked you?” While the movie grapples primarily with difficult concepts like domestic violence and the aftermath of rape, the movie’s pendulum still swings strangely between tragedy and, of all things, comedy. I found myself laughing not when Pingguo’s pregnancy test shows up positive, but when An-kun offers to sell the child to Lin Dong for the equivalent of USD$16500. Of course, there’s nothing at all humorous about exchanging a baby for money, but Li Yu’s framing of the situation elicits involuntary laughter. Picture this: An-kun and Lin Dong squatting furtively on the roof of a skyscraper. Lin Dong is drawing stick figures with chalk, trying to figure out the baby’s blood type, while arguing with An-kun about the price. Both of them are half-blinded by the wind that sets their clothes flapping, so they’re constantly groping at their own faces. A passerby, on a cigarette break, lifts an eyebrow - and for some murky reason, seeing my own reaction mirrored on the face of a complete stranger, someone completely tangential to the story, triggered a chuckle.
Why laughter at this particular shot? Despite the stimulus of a comedic segment, I somehow feel like my cackle was, oddly, as much of a reaction to the earlier scenes of violence and unhappiness as to those of humor; a kind of release for pent-up frustration with the characters for making terrible choices and for generally being heinous people. Li Yu uses comedy as a way of making the audience interact emotionally with a set of characters that they don’t necessarily like or want to be involved with at all – in this way, comedy actually becomes a conduit for expressing tragedy. Feeling guilty about laughing, we are enfolded into the movie’s general atmosphere of uneasiness and constant tension; we are made unwilling accomplices. The movie is filled with such moments that sit uncomfortably between farce and genuine desolation. In the rape scene, An-kun hammers on the window from the outside as he dangles from a rope swing, yelling obscenities through the glass, while Lin Dong falls off Pingguo in surprise, gets tangled in his own pants, and ends up banging on the glass as well, stark naked from the waist down. Spittle flies, fists are shaken, and the overall impression of this brief moment is of two dogs howling at each other - again, that uncertain giggle.
|Actress Fan Bingbing|
Pingguo is curiously blank as a character – her lack of participation makes the complicated dance between tragedy and comedy within the movie feel incomplete, particularly because she holds such a central position in the plot. While at the end of the movie Pingguo decides to take her baby and leave the entire mess behind (by this point, An-kun is in jail and Lin Dong has been reduced to a paranoid wreck), her decision feels abrupt because she displays little initiative otherwise. She is silent when An-kun and Lin Dong sign the baby-money contract, and again when Lin Dong moves her into his house to act as a nurse for the newborn. Does she have a purpose other than to serve as an object of desire that initiates the movie’s plotline, and then as a way for the movie to have a sudden ending? Pingguo’s inertness makes it hard to feel anything about her at all, despite the fact that she was the victim of a terrible crime. The unreal beauty of Fan Bingbing, the actress who plays Pingguo, only makes the character feel more dissonant because it isn’t backed by a personality that can participate in the dialogue between tragedy and comedy, and so ignite our sympathies. But consider that “pingguo” means ‘apple’ in Mandarin, which is equally offbeat a name in Mandarin as it is in English – from that perspective, perhaps Pingguo is meant to feel unnatural. I can also see her discordant beauty as another way in which Li Yu seeks to intimately implicate the audience by playing on our sense of guilt; rape is terrible, but Li Yu makes it clear to us that Pingguo is a sexual object that we can fetishize and desire. We can’t help but fall for that temptation – which makes another distressing emotional connection for the audience, this time with Lin Dong, Pingguo’s sexual aggressor.
In that way, Pingguo at least remains a part of the director’s attempts to integrate the audience into the emotional landscape of the movie. Wang Mei, Lin Dong’s wife, acts as an excellent foil in this regard. Her interactions with Pingguo further complicate the matter of Pingguo’s passiveness – does her youth and beauty make her untouchable for the faded Wang Mei? Can they even be considered romantic rivals? Wang Mei obviously struggles with these questions, as evidenced by her frequent oscillations between feeling pity for and enraged jealousy of Pingguo. She has a forceful personality that demands attention, and her mood swings pull the audience with her in the same way that the mixing of tragedy and comedy does – I found that my ability to sympathize with Pingguo was actually greatly influenced by whatever Wang Mei’s attitude was at the moment. The subtleties of her feelings for Pingguo make their relationship emotionally charged, balancing it with that of the two men.
While the elaborateness of the character interaction in Lost in Beijing is intriguing, this sophistication is sometimes lost when the plot becomes too cluttered with extraneous details. Some secondary scenes are quite powerful, such as when we see Lin Dong praying on his knees for Pingguo’s unborn baby, displaying a tenderness that swells throughout subsequent scenes with Pingguo. I don’t pardon him for his sexual crime, but my feelings toward him did soften somewhat as Li Yu revealed more and more of his strong desire to be a caring father. However, other plot nuances just seem ludicrous. For example, after Pingguo’s rape, An-kun confronts Wang Mei, intending to blackmail Lin Dong, but ends up having sex with her instead. Here is also an example of how Li Yu’s careful fusing of tragedy and comedy fails: bouncing up and down on An-kun, Wang Mei clumsily shoves a pair of sunglasses on his face to prevent him from looking at her. The humor is crude, and I felt crude laughing at it.
Generally speaking, the concept of being ‘lost’ in this world is taken too literally at times, which makes the title of the movie cheesy; there is too much jerky camera motion, and too many aimless shots of the population of lower class Beijing. I understand that Li Yu is trying to make a point about the plethora of tragedies and comedies that stack up to make everyday life – and I think she’s mostly successful - but the improbability of the movie’s events makes this movement toward a general statement about everyone very tenuous. Still, Lost in Beijing is definitely a worthwhile film to watch, in light of the dexterity with which the four main characters are framed and juxtaposed against each other. The characters dance in and out of roles like parent, child, lover, spouse, and I never once felt like Li Yu was passing judgment on anyone – or that I was expected to judge anyone. At the end, I was left feeling completely hopeless and, surprisingly, completely detached from all the characters, despite having laughed and cried with them. Perhaps this is Li Yu’s intention; to enforce the idea that all human connections are circumstantial and prone to weakness, as unsubstantial as cobwebs. The only thing we can depend on is our own isolation.