Demystifying Lou Ye's 'Mystery'

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-21 19:45:07


A scene from Mystery Photo: CFP
A scene from Mystery Photo: CFP

The latest work from domestic filmmaker Lou Ye, Mystery, generated buzz well before its premiere in the Chinese mainland last Friday. Not only was it this year's only domestic film invited to the Festival de Cannes, but the half-year long struggle with authorities to debut an appropriate Chinese mainland version attracted much attention.

Yet following the film's debut, many cinemas in Beijing only gave it two screening slots, and many netizens complained cinemas in other cities like Chongqing and Changchun were not even screening the film.

Though some followers of Lou Ye found Mystery disappointing compared to his previous works, this is one of the few solid domestic films of this year, addressing personal and societal problems.

Dual identities

The film opens with a car accident, where college student Xiaomin (Chang Fangyuan) is killed by a car driven by You Jiaming, son of a business tycoon. You is racing on the street while fooling around with a woman. But the story is not simply about spoiled rich kids racing cars, trending topics in China in recent years. Deeper plots behind the accident are revealed.

The main story revolves around housewife Lu Jie (Hao Lei), who lives a stable and happy life with her young daughter and her kind and successful husband Qiao Yongzhao (Qin Hao).

One day, Lu meets Sang Qi (Qi Xi), mother of her daughter's schoolmate, who later invites Lu to a cafe. Sang confides in Lu, saddened by the discovery that her husband is committing adultery. While comforting Sang, Lu discovers the man Sang points at through the window, entering a hotel with a young woman (later identified as Xiaomin), is actually her husband Qiao.

Lu realizes that her seemingly perfect husband has a double life and a second family with Sang. Lu plots ways to win back her husband. 

Societal probing

Mystery is adapted from an online BBS post, where a woman describes fighting against her husband and his lover. Without more context, people may immediately align their sympathy with the wife and their anger at the unfaithful husband.

But Lou's story makes it difficult for audiences to be angry at any specific character - everyone is a victim, and the events seem inevitable. The director leaves space for audiences to form their own understanding.

Qiao's split nature, for example, is revealed through fragments of his life. It's implied that Qiao succeeds in business with the help of Lu and lives in a household dominated by Lu. He is gentle and contained with her, shielding his anger.

But to relieve himself of his anger and dissatisfaction, Qiao has one night stands with vulnerable women and indulges in drugs. He behaves roughly and violently when living with Sang. He verbally and physically abuses her, tears her clothes, and forces her to have sex with him.

Audiences can tell that Qiao is remorseful over his actions. He beats himself but is not able to find a way out. Qiao becomes stressed from his complicated dual identity and life.

According to the film's official Sina Weibo, the director said this kind of dual life can exist for any man, a group of people and even a nation.

Such feelings are shared by audiences. "[I feel] it's not just a story about others, but a reflection of our own lives," a male audience surnamed Gao commented after watching the film on Friday.

Lou links the film to real social events in contemporary Chinese society, like the beginning of the film, where the son of a business tycoon runs over the young college girl. The son is released after his father pays a sum of money to the victim's mother and buys her a house.

Though the police later discover wounds on Xiaomin's head, suggesting it is not just a car accident, they neglect to launch further investigations when Xiaomin's mother accepts the compensation.

Signature style

Lou Ye, 47, director of Mystery, seldom ventures into mainstream films, as most of his works are independent and therefore not as popular in the Chinese film market.

Previous films include Suzhou River (2000), Purple Butterfly (2004) and Spring Fever (2009), uniformally dark documentary-like films, containing sex, violence and death. This signature style continues in Mystery, separating it from the majority of other films screened domestically.

The faces in the films are not household names, and the actresses wear little make up. The camera sways on purpose. Scenes set in heavy rain and gloomy environments convey a dismal mood.

"Most people who treat films as just entertainment may not like this," Wei Huan, a white-collar worker in Beijing said after watching the film. "It provokes ideas that require time to get over. It's tiring thinking of these social problems, especially for people coming from work."

"Lou Ye turns a simple romance story into a complicated suspense film, with certain scenes similar to South Korean gangster films," Li Zhong, a film critic in Yunnan Province, commented. "The characters give great performances and set the right tone."

Yet, Li Shifeng, another film critic, disagrees. "The plots are rather [fluffy]… and do not engage audiences. It's a pity. Hence it's a three-star movie," he posted on his Sina Weibo.

Some fans of Lou were also let down. "Having watched Lou's Summer Palace, Mystery is disappointing," Yuly Chou, a bank employee in Beijing said. "It has a good beginning but ends roughly."

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