Li Luo has quietly become a name to watch on the festival circuit for the increasing confidence with which his films have collapsed fact and fiction to ruminate on how individuals negotiate time, place, ideology, and myth to find a measure of truth. Following the meditative family history Rivers and My Father (2010) and self-reflexive satire Emperor Visits the Hell (2012), the China-born, Canada-based Li now seems poised for a breakthrough. Li Wen at East Lake is his most accessible work to date a seriocomic procedural that follows a policeman on an investigation around Wuhan’s glorious scenic spot, the largest urban lake in China.
Before we encounter our titular character, however, Li offers thirty minutes of documentary footage that starts with geographic facts by introducing East Lake through Internet maps. He then solicits the opinions of locals regarding the filling-in of the lake to construct an amusement park and luxury apartments with some expressing concern about the ecological consequences of such rampant commercial development. With context established, Li segues into fiction with hefty, middle-aged police officer Li Wen (Li Wen) and his younger colleague Zuo (Zuo Yan), being tasked with finding a local eccentric who has been telling fantastical tales about a dragon rising from the lake to take revenge on Wuhan. The authorities want to curtail any embarrassment that could occur during an upcoming official visit, although the plainclothes assignment proves to be a ramble around the natural splendor of East Lake rather than an urgent manhunt.
Initially, Li Wen seems to be an audience surrogate with his lackadaisical investigation and conversations with friends (which often take place when he should probably be working) providing a cross-section of attitudes towards the state of contemporary China. He engages with elderly citizens who talk about the legends associated with East Lake; a provocative artist whose work exhibits mild dissent; a young man who admits to filling out an application form to join the Communist Party by copying all the answers from the Internet on the basis that nobody really reads the responses. There is also a heated debate between Li Wen and a gender studies student who is compiling interviews with homosexuals of various ages who are afraid to come out (made all the more awkward by the fact that Zuo, unbeknownst to Li Wen, has participated in her study). Li Wen mocks her research but the student turns the tables by raising the topic of castration anxiety, which prompts the officer’s dismissive bluster to spiral into comical discomfort.
It gradually becomes clear that Li Wen’s investigation is a ruse and that the real mystery here is the officer himself, a man who has as many layers as the film in which he is the ostensible dramatic anchor. It transpires that Li Wen is more complex than his state servant persona suggests. An antiquarian who collects photographs of China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution period, Li Wen was once a modernist artist, but has chosen to conform, channeling his talents into maintaining necessary relationships by painting safe landscapes to decorate the new homes of his superiors. Aside from his aforementioned argument with the university student, which could be attributed to generational differences, Li Wen personally remains non-judgmental to those who tacitly challenge the status quo, despite his professional complicity in a system of repression. After giving the artist an obligatory warning about the dangers of making trouble, the officer concedes that he wishes he could take more risks in his own life and work.
Li has become so deft at slipping between fact and fiction (or merging the two) that Li Wen at East Lake is his most deceptively casual work so far. The documentary section features staged elements, with one interviewee (who will prove significant later on) being an actor and a local government meeting to discuss building a second airport on what remains of the lake performed by environmental activists. Li Wen is a fictional character, but the amateur actor who portrays his screen namesake is an artist and teacher in real life with his studio featured in the film. Putting other non-professionals into narrative episodes alongside Li Wen affords these Wuhan residents a freedom to express opinions that they might self-censor if interviewed in straight documentary format.
Adding a more explicitly politicized dimension to the theme of man and nature that was previously explored in Rivers and My Father, Li here takes the urbanization of East Lake (once the summer retreat of Chairman Mao) as being emblematic not only of China’s unstoppable modernisation but its erasure of the recent past. Playful yet pointed, Li Wen at East Lake represents another impressive leap in Li’s cinema of deconstruction.
Li Wen at East Lake will be shown as part of the Chinese Visual Festival at King’s Safra on May 15.