Two extraordinary actresses bring emotional depth to Lost, Found, a story of universal horror: the abduction of a small child. Yao Chen portrays an attractive legal eagle whose court uniform is bright red lipstick and gray business tailleur; she is a self-confident professional woman who overplays her hand as career woman and mother. Ma Yili is her daughter’s mousy, apparently perfect nanny who hides a back-tragedy from her employer. In a film that threatens to collapse into a moralizing drama about women’s proper role in society, they push the story onto much richer psychological ground.
This marks Lv Yue’s fourth film as a director. (He is best known as an award-winning DP whose glamorous cinematography on Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad won him an Oscar nomination.) Leaving the photography in the competent but never overtly flashy hands of Cheng Ma, he directs this women’s story with compassion and empathy, though perhaps with too much obviousness and avoidance of gray areas. Lost, Found bowed in Shanghai as one of the two Chinese entries in competition.
Though the title may seem like a spoiler, it works on many levels, including finding oneself and coming to terms with the way things are. As far as self-discovery goes, both women have a long row to hoe in the opening scenes. Lawyer Li Jie (Yao, who played the self-serving editor in Chen Kaige’s Caught in the Web) is callously fighting a custody case against a desperate mother. When the woman tearfully insists she gave up everything for her child, including her career, Li tells her this was a very bad idea: “A woman’s life should never be about only love and marriage.” Even if the viewer agrees with her, a little emotional rapport with a fellow mom might be humanly desirable.
What she doesn’t know yet, though the audience does because of the opening flash-forward, is that her smug professional ice will soon melt when she goes home to find an empty crib and the nanny vanished. Her one-year-old daughter Duoduo has been living with her since her doctor husband moved out in preparation for their divorce. It’s a custody battle she intends to win permanently. But her poor judgment in choosing an unqualified nanny, not to mention her emotional breakdown when the child goes missing, raises questions about how reliable a mother she really is. Above all, little Duoduo seems more like an ornament for her ego than the object of selfless maternal love, and the bond between them feels as flimsy as that with her ex.
Flashbacks explain how, in a moment of need, someone casually introduced her to babysitter Sun Fang (Ma, who played Aaron Kwok’s wife in the H.K. police thriller Cold War). The young woman, unprepossessing to a fault, has a gift for calming the baby down and Li hires her without investigating her background. Now she has to make up for lost time. While the police (very efficient for once) follow their own clues, she launches a search for the nanny on her own.
More flashbacks show what a psychological mess Sun really is. Fleeing a violent husband with their infant daughter Zhuzhu, who is chronically ill, she works as a prostitute to pay for the baby’s medical bills. When a young hustler falls for her, she lives a moment of emotional stability. But now every trace of her seems to have evaporated.
Ma brings disarming sincerity to the role of the nanny, making scene after scene movingly believable, playing working-class human to Yao’s aloof middle-class perfection. The class difference between the two mothers is contrasted without excessive commentary, along with Sun’s heartbreaking inability to pay for the medical treatment her child needs to survive, and Li’s priority track to a hospital bed for her offspring. Sun’s frantic search for a ride to the hospital in the pouring rain is a wonderful scene that skirts melodrama, but is emotional anyway.
Yao is equally bold and fine as Li, who makes a hair-raising, last-ditch appeal for her daughter’s life. These dramatic high points make you forget the mush of happy fantasy sequences warmed by violins and cellos. The final voiceover drawing easy moralizing conclusions comes across as false and facile, downgrading the more complex dramatization that has preceded it. It would be a mercy to cut it out altogether.
Production companies: Easy Production, Huayi Brothers Pictures
Cast: Yao Chen, Ma Yili, Yuan Wenkang, Wu Hanchen
Director: Lv Yue
Screenwriter: Qin Haiyan
Producers: Wang Zhonglei, Ren Zhonglun, Jessica Chen
Director of photography: Cheng Ma
Editor: Zhang Yifan
Music: An Wei
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (competition)