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A festival favorite whose previous film has secured a top prize at Vancouver and much acclaim at Rotterdam, Chinese director Li Luo returns to the festival circuit (and specifically the Dutch festival) with a feature about a suppressed police officer grappling with vanquished artistic aspirations and political awareness as he patrols one of China’s most famous scenic spots.
Making its bow at the Spectrum section in Rotterdam – from which the production received financial backing through the Hubert Bals Fund – Li Wen at East Lake is the Canada-trained director’s most coherent, accessible and multi-layered outing in his four-feature career, and is certainly bound for an even longer global run than his previous film, the Vancouver-winning Emperor Visits the Hell.
Compared to the awkward and excessively self-aware Emperor, Li Wen is a very focused piece, as Li Luo gradually peels off the layers off his titular protagonist’s cynical veneer to reveal how he, like the citizenry, inadvertently choose to bury his real self for the sake of survival in the present.
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While a revisit of the docudrama hybrid of his second film Rivers and My Father, Li Wen is definitely a more audacious and political work, as Li Luo quietly but powerfully contends with the effect of ideological indoctrination in China. It’s an issue the director broached head on during the film’s first part: unfolding like a documentary, it zooms in on how people resign to the way businessmen reclaim land and build lavish property complexes on the side of East Lake, an idyllic place which once hosted Mao Zedong‘s summer villa.
While a handful of dissenters complain about the ecological devastation, even more are resigned to it – such as the hordes of revellers lining up to enter an amusement park on the shore, or the fishermen who speak about getting rich for selling their waterside village land to the developers. Meanwhile, a middle-aged man is shown barracking a research student, dismissing the young man’s criticism of the construction work as “showy”, his motives “fishy” and stating how, at the end of the day, the government is “a brutal machine” aimed at bulldozing everything out of its way.
It’s at this point, 40 minutes into the film, that the title card appears and everything switches gear into dramatic territory. Here, the focus is cast on the life of that last grumbler of an interviewee who, of course, is not exactly a passer-by but a fictional character. Li Wen (played by Li Wen, the lead in Emperor Visits the Hell) is a policeman asked to investigate sightings of a mentally ill man around the East Lake; as he goes about his work, he hears of legends about dragons in the lake, goes to offer incense for his dead mother, and debates with a gender-studies student over lunch about his supposed fear of castration.
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What appeared at first to be a random argument about masculinity actually sets the tone for what follows: His refusal to probe deeper into his fears and desire is put into context when the story reveals him as having traded in his sophistication (with a training in modern painting) for everyday survival (painting suspects, decorating walls of his supervisors’ new flats). He’s indifferent when a drawing student of his talks about faking his CV so as to secure membership to the “stepping stone” that is the Chinese Communist Party; in his spare time, he browses through his collection of old photographs, all stripped of their political relevance and becoming merely assets changing hands at six-figure sums.
Li Luo never seeks to browbeat viewers into submission of his pessimism. Rather, Li Wen at East Lake is a comic tragedy, its wealth of comedic moments nearly all leaving a bitter aftertaste. With Li Luo’s fine screenplay (a marked improvement from Emperor), leading star Li Wen delivering a very natural performance and clever interweaving of the fantastical, the simply fictional and the real (sequences of Mao swimming in the East Lake have never been in such poignant context before), Li Wen at East Lake is much more than a walk in the experimental park.
Production companies: Luo Li Films
Cast: Li Wen, Zuo Yan, Yan Zi
Director: Li Luo
Screenwriter: Li Luo?
Producers: Li Luo
Director of photography: Ren Jie, Li Luo
Production designer: Zi Jie
Art director: Li Jun
Costume designer: Hu Wenjun
Editors: Li Luo
Music: Wu Feng
Sales: Luo Li Films
No rating; 117 minutes
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