Controversy swirled around Yu Li's Lost in Beijing prior to it arriving in Berlin, as Chinese censors threatened to block the film from screening unless Li made certain cuts that were crucial to the plot. Of course, said cuts involved removing scenes that shed a negative light on China; like a doctor taking a bribe, prostitution shops and something to do with the heavy sex scenes. Needless to say, the film did make it in and, from what we were told, the version that screened for the press was uncut. Though the finished product was far from risky material (to this American audience member, at least), pic's carefully layered script and outstanding ensemble cast helped rise it above a slew of mediocre fare ... but, it remained hovering beneath fest's best pics.
Sprawling shots of Beijing skyscrapers greet us to open the film; most of them under construction as if to foreshadow the birth of something new. Like a lot of girls her age, Liu Ping Guo (Fan Bingbing) struggles to get by; between her income as a foot masseuse and her husband's (Tong Da Wei) as a high-rise window cleaner, the two can just barely afford a dingy apartment and life's most sacred essentials. For now, their marriage is kept secret -- for Liu could be fired if her boss (Tony Leung, as a multi-millionaire who's married to an elegant woman, yet spends most of his time paying for high-priced prostitutes to visit him in hotel rooms) were to find out she was attached. While no sex takes place at his masseuse parlor, he likes his pack of girls to be young, single and flirty. The more they flirt, the more money comes in.
In pic's most dizzying scene, Liu gets drunk and soon finds herself coming on to her boss back at work, not realizing what she's doing. After noticing who it is attempting to have sex with her, Liu briefly fights back but eventually gives up. This leads into one of those "what are the chances" moments, as Liu's husband, An Kun, is conveniently washing the same window that looks into his wife and boss having sex. Exactly: What are the chances? Nevertheless, he flips out, tries to beat up her boss and subsequently gets her fired. Director Yu Li really lets loose in these early scenes; she blurs the lens and shakes the camera while Liu is drunk; swings in real tight as Liu and An are having sex in the shower; and purposely shoots at a frantic pace in order to convey the characters' overwhelming emotional state.
Once Liu finds out she's pregnant, Li slows to open up the story. Who is the child's father -- her husband or her boss? Lin Dong, her boss, is somewhat ecstatic about the baby -- finally, a reason to live for -- a purpose for his existence. An Kun, her husband, sees dollar signs. Prior to the child's birth, the two men sit down to draw up a contract: if the father is Lin Dong, he will pay the couple $100,000 for the baby. If the father is An Kun, there is no money, only an extra mouth to feed. When the child is born, only An Kun knows he is the real father ... and yet he alters the birth certificate to make it appear as if Lin Dong is the father. Greed consumes him, until it ultimately comes back around to bite him in the ass.
Script (written by Li and Li Fang) isn't too daring -- in fact, a few of us joked beforehand that the "whole censor debacle" was nothing but a hoax to get people in seats. Instead, Lost in Beijing relies heavily on its cast to give it their all (which they do); to expose powerful emotions in a way that makes it seem fresh. An Kun's transformation from a greedy husband to a desperate father is by far the most entertaining to watch ... even if it's hard to relate to a man who would give up his wife, his baby and his pride for a measly chunk of change. Pic does run into problems when it comes to length; two hours feels more like two and a half, as the pace drastically slows to a crawl toward the latter part of the film. Li chooses to focus a lot on Beijing architecture throughout; the first half almost feels like a guided tour. But, it does service the plot -- to show how big this city is; how small and meaningless these characters are in the grand scheme of the things. Good, but not great, Lost in Beijing probably won't find much of an audience in the States -- except in big cities like New York -- where, like its characters, pic will most likely get lost trying to fit in amongst larger, and more buzzed-about, indie gems.