Lost Lotus (Hong Kong/Netherlands, 2019)
In her first feature Lotus (2012), journalist turned independent filmmaker Liu Shu took the patriarchal pressure on women in China as a microcosm of the nation’s centralized power. It’s a theme that she elaborates on in her second feature, Lost Lotus. The protagonist, Wu Yu (Yan Wensi) is a school teacher who struggles to be heard in a society where she is expected to listen to her husband and kowtow to men in powerful positions.
In the opening scenes, Wu Yu is teaching her students about the importance of the connection between Man and the Infinite. She is a serious young woman and shows deep concern for one of her students who is about to drop out of school to look after his father. We later find out that the father was beaten badly by the housing developers for refusing to sell his house. Whilst the family took him to hospital, his house was demolished and the local authority did nothing to help them. Wu Yu visits her student at home and offers to help him find a job. Through this framing narrative, we discover Wu Yu’s exemplary and selfless nature; it also illustrates a social environment where people can no longer rely on justice.
Wu Yu is not a Buddhist herself but after her mother, a Dhamma practitioner, is killed in a hit and run accident she meets with Buddhist nuns, all friends of her mother and finds comfort in the rituals and prayers. She decides to respect her mother’s wishes of an immediate cremation following the funerals, which, in turn, compromise the coroner’s investigation into the accident.
The film centers on the themes of revenge and forgiveness through the Buddhist principles of karma and reincarnation. In her search for the killer, Wu Yu has to grapple with the local policeman whose integrity is questionable. After putting posters around the accident site, she eventually finds out who the killer is from an anonymous caller and is then confronted by yet another unpleasant and thuggish character, the killer’s lawyer. Her husband (Zhao Xuan) is willing to accept money as compensation for his mother-in-law’s death, something Wu Yu finds objectionable and this lead to confrontation in their marriage. She insists on meeting the killer face to face although her reasons for doing so remain vague and disconcerting.
The Buddhists’ belief that destiny brings justice in the next life sows ambivalence in Wu Yu’s mind. The quest for revenge eventually takes on an overwhelming dimension and there are scenes of kidnapping, intimidation and intense domestic theatricals. This is unfortunately the point where the plot looses credibility and sinks into melodramatic violence.
Liu’s movie is a condemnation of the many facets of an unscrupulous social system stemming from a traditional patriarchal society. All the main male roles in Lost Lotus are characters of low morality who demonstrate a capacity for aggression and psychologically manipulation. On the other hand, the Buddhist nuns are shown as compassionate and the female roles are emotionally well developed. Canadian-Chinese actress Yan Wensi is remarkable in the role of Wu Yu. Much of the film’s dramatic tension relies on her sensitive portrayal of psychological drama.
Lost Lotus may struggle in some parts as it runs into difficult concepts and Kafkaesque situations but there is much to recommend here. The Buddhist narrative thread is innovative and gives the story a unique perspective. A director who dares to confront social justice and inequality in today’s China should be applauded while it is refreshing to see women portrayed as being capable of taking destiny in their own hands.