Mystery (China, 2012) [NYAFF 2013]

Mystery It’s a cliché to state that China’s social landscape is constantly changing, but based on the milieu of Mystery, a few years away from home for the Sixth Generation filmmaker Lou Ye seems to have made the director intensely aware of developments that he felt compelled to address. Lou had been serving a five year filmmaking ban related to his coming-of-age epic Summer Palace (2006) which took place against the backdrop of the student uprising of 1989, although he did manage to shoot the gay love story Spring Fever (2009) in Nanjing without an official license. He then spent the rest of his exile from above-ground production in Paris, where he completed Love and Bruises (2011), a problematic but undeniably powerful account of the violent relationship between a Chinese student and a brutish construction worker. Returning to China, he became immersed in the online world of micro-blogs and, in collaboration with regular screenwriter Mei Feng, developed a social commentary based on a series of posts by a woman who believed that her husband was having an affair. Linking this example of domestic rupture to another current topic – the speed racing activities of affluent youths – facilitates a thorough investigation of morality that blends drama, thriller and satire, though not always smoothly. Mystery would be Lou’s first mainland theatrical release since Purple Butterfly (2003), but the local censorship board was reluctant to approve the director’s unflinching vision. This resulted in limited screenings in certain cities and Lou taking to Weibo to vent his frustrations regarding his protracted dealing with the film bureau.

Mystery takes place in perpetually overcast Wuhan, where a pair of seemingly separate stories will gradually interconnect. It opens with two cars speeding along a highway during a torrential downpour: the vehicles are being driven by irresponsible rich kids, with one preferring to make-out with the girl in the passenger seat than to pay proper attention to the road ahead. This irresponsible behaviour causes a nasty accident when they fail to notice a woman stumbling around in the middle of the road, with one of the drivers running her over. The film then goes back in time to focus on Yangzhao (Qin Hao) and Lu Jie (Hao Lei), a married couple in their thirties with a young daughter, who are leading a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. However, marital bliss is disturbed when Lu Jie becomes friends with Sang Qi (Qi Xi), a mother who is convinced that her husband is having an affair. It turns out that her husband is, in fact, Yangzhao, who has not only been keeping two wives, but also seeing attractive twenty-something Xiaomin (Chang Fangyan), the woman who will become the victim of the opening car crash. With two narrative strands established, Lou juggles the enquiries of the individual and the state as Lu Jie discovers that her husband’s classy demeanour is a façade that disguises the capacity for cruelty while the police seek to imprison the reckless driver for Xiaomin’s death. Lou’s treatment of both situations serves as a scathing indictment of an increasingly monetised Chinese society where fundamental institutions are being undermined by corruptive influences.Mystery

Lou’s fellow Sixth Generation alumnus Wang Xiaoshuai shot his early neo noir So Close to Paradise (1998) in Wuhan when the city was in the throes of redevelopment due to a government scheme intended to accelerate industrial growth. At that time, the city was essentially a construction site with an abundance of migrants flocking to the special development zone in the hope of a better life. Mystery finds Wuhan as a fully developed metropolis, although its newfound wealth has evidently been built on shaky social foundations and its skyline is forever shrouded by industrial fog. Lou’s films are usually concerned with characters on the margins, so it’s almost jarring to watch the protagonists of Mystery driving around in nice cars, shopping at designer boutiques, or taking their children to school. He observes them in customary hand-held style, pushing for revealing intimacy through close-ups and guarded exchanges, but failing to achieve the expected complexity due to a narrative that is based on the emotional broad strokes of the blogosphere. The film never grips as a procedural as the manner in which the two stories become intertwined is not particularly hard to guess once Yongzhao’s double life is exposed, although the real mystery here is China’s shifting value system and the myriad of deceptions that are occurring beneath its economically prosperous surface. It’s as messy as Lou’s previous work in terms of its depiction of relationships, but the propulsive emotional engagement that the director usually generates through such entanglements is lacking, thereby rendering Mystery a strangely apathetic experience despite its undeniable topicality.

Mystery is screening at the Walter Reade Theater on Wednesday, July 3rd at 5:45p and Thursday, July 11th at 1:00p as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.  For more information and tickets, go here.