It’s fascinating how familiar or recognizable stories set in China, or at least in Beijing, have become. As recently as the mid 1990s, seeing any movie from China felt like a revelatory glimpse into a genuinely foreign culture.
But what’s remarkable about Lost in Beijing is how non-exotic the city on view is — the Western-style hotels, the high rises looming over downtown (some of the POV shots taken from a moving car could almost be downtown L.A., or any city in the southwestern U.S.), the consumer goods, all the trappings of middle-class life.
Instead it’s the incongruous sights amid all the new affluence — like the huge placards of Chairman Mao in the background of one plaza — that jump out. Or the scene where massage parlor owner Lin Dong (Tony Leung Ka Fai) gamely leads his employees in a session of calisthenics, as if they should be not just a staff but a collective. The moment feels like a holdover from an earlier era of undiluted socialism, and you can sympathize with Lin Dong’s staffers if they’re confused, because elsewhere Dong makes it brutally clear who the top dog here is.
Lost in Beijing is an absorbing melodrama as long as you don’t consider the more far-fetched plot devices. The film becomes more interesting when you read about how the Chinese authorities were so alarmed by this independent production that they first demanded cuts, then banned it from theatres entirely (after it had already opened) and forbade producer Fang Li from working in film for the next two years. The reason given was the fairly explicit sex scenes; there are three within the first 20 minutes, and graphic enough to warrant an R rating, and maybe even an NC-17 in the U.S.
But I can’t help thinking that what the government really objected to was the unflattering mirror the movie holds up to present-day China. The film is about how naked avarice has corroded life in modern Beijing, with crass commercial gain creeping into every relationship, and the most vulgar self-interest now the norm. No wonder the movie feels so recognizable and non-exotic for a Western viewer.
There’s another reason why a movie like Lost in Beijing feels so familiar; it’s not just what’s being filmed, but how it’s filmed. Director Li Yu opts for the jittery, handheld camcorder look that’s become the reigning indie style all over the world. Chris Barsanti of filmcritic.com writes: “With its brisk international style, Lost in Beijing looks like it could have been shot by any talented film school graduate from almost anywhere.” Isn’t it time for a moratorium on this pseudo verité aesthetic? What felt so novel and immediate in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves in 1996 is now the biggest cliché going.