A social satire with strong sexual undertones in its early reels, which switches as it progresses into a darker melodrama, Li Yu's new film offers another variant on the surrogate mother dilemma. Despite some hesitancies in the second half, it pulls through thanks to a strong cast headed by respected veterans Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Elaine Jin.
Notwithstanding irritating, unstable handheld camera work which draws attention to itself more than to its subjects, Lost In Beijing has a piquant premise that should be enough to draw attention to it both on the huge home market and abroad. In particular an emotional final scene will leave a favourable impression on audiences as they leave the theatre.
Mystifying objections by the Chinese censors, who brandished their scissors high until the eve of the official press screening, have left no visible scars on the competition print screened in Berlin, which is exactly the same length as the print introduced in the EFM. If the censors had planned to cut something out, then the suspicion is that they eventually reconsidered - but the doubt as to the final shape opf the print has generated word-of-mouth publicity that will be invaluable for the commercial future of Lost In Beijing.
Pretty foot masseuse Ping Guoa (Fan Bingbing) gets drunk and stumbles into the bed of her boss, Lin Dong (Leung). Her husband, An Kun (Tong Dawei), a window cleaner, sees it all, pretends to be scandalised but is willing to be appeased for an adequate sum of money.
Lin Dong refuses to be blackmailed until it turns out that Ping Guo is pregnant and the child might be his, whereupon he immediately changes his mind. Married for 16 years to a highly presentable, shrewd but sterile woman, Wang Mei (Jin), he is now offered the chance to become a father and is more than willing to pay for it.
A contract is signed whereby if the baby born is demonstrably Lin Dong's (through blood and DNA tests), then it will be handed over to him and his wife in exchange for a considerable sum of money; the natural mother will also agree to stay with the baby for the first six months as his/her 'nanny', then relinquish all her rights.
It is, of course, the kind of contract rarely respected; parental love ultimately beats naked greed in an inconclusive ending, allowing the audience to imagine the next step for itself.
Starting on an ebullient note and marching energetically forward, the script initially provides a number of unexpected twists and turns, such as the boss' spouse suggesting to the victim's husband that the only viable revenge for him is to sleep with herself - which he proceeds to do for the rest of the film.
By the time Ping Guo reaches the later stages of pregnancy, the script is already out of breath, resorting to a long travelogue of Beijing, to take the story through to the birth itself. From there on, the tone changes, as the plot becomes ever more entangled in itself, trying in the process to make sure that each character gets the comeuppance they deserve before the end.
As upsetting as this corrosive portrait of a society devoted to the Golden Calf must have been to Chinese censors, they may as well accept the fact that if their country changes economically as much as it has done, then similar changes are only to be expected in its population as well.
Directed with brio by Li Yu, the story is told mainly in close-ups through a handheld camera used in conditions that do not always allow much precise focus. The insistent nervousness is also communicated through breathless editing and abrupt cuts, thrown in to reflect the pulse of Beijing life today.
Fan Bingbing's radiant presence predominates, particularly in the first part, while Tony Leung Ka-Fai shines over much of the second. Elaine Jin's scheming wife after playing the inveterate bitch for most of the film, shows sudden depth in final scenes which belong to her more than anyone else.
Tony Leung Ka-Fai