Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lost in Beijing: Grade A

Lost in Beijing (2007)
Tony Leung, Bingbing Fan, Dawei Tong. Cowriter and Director: Yu Li. (Chinese, subtitled).

A young, poor couple and an older, rich couple interact in modern Beijing, which was unrecognizable since I was there in 1979 when there was no building over about 7 storeys, and even those were crumbling stone blocks built by the British. Now gleaming glass and steel towers sprout like mushrooms after a rain, under a filthy brown sky. It could be Detroit or Miami or any other modern city. The movie gives a glimpse into the lives of people living high in the towers and low on the ground.

The young man (Tong) is a window washer and happens to see through the window, his wife (Fan) being raped by her boss (Leung). The young man demands payment in retribution, but things become complicated when we learn that Fan is pregnant. This movie is banned in China and the filmmakers are forbidden to work for two years, ostensibly because of the sex and nudity in the film. But I don’t think that is the real reason it was banned. There isn’t really much nudity on screen and the film is in no sense pornographic. We see some naked legs and buttocks, and that’s about it.

Of course among a billion people, there is sex every minute of every day, but to show it on film probably contrasts too harshly with the “official” view that all Chinese people are proud and dignified. The sharp division between inner and outer personality is core to the culture, and this film allows all the world, especially us barbarian Westerners, to look past the outer formalities to the inner private life.

More important though was probably the censors’ embarrassment or shame about how badly women are treated. The movie is a strong social statement by the female director and co-writer. Women are raped, beat up, murdered, ordered to have an abortion, forbidden to have an abortion, kidnapped, their babies bought and sold. Although the movie is not explicitly violent, the story makes it very clear that women are chattel in China today, despite the veneer of modern civilization. If that were not so, the censors would not be embarrassed by the movie and would have let it run. In the ending, the protagonist woman makes a defiant move, her declaration of independence, but I wonder how realistic that possibility is in today’s Beijing.

It is a very well-acted movie, with considerable sensitivity and humor, great photography, some interesting editing, and a stunning look into modern Beijing. But above all, it is a courageous expose and plea on behalf of Chinese women, and women everywhere.

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