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Chinese writer-director Lou Ye makes a fitfully engaging return to “official” filmmaking after a half-decade ban with Mystery, in which a wife’s discovery of her husband’s affairs yields some bloodily violent consequences. Lou has long been supported by French financiers, critics and programmers, and his seventh feature’s selection as opener for Un Certain Regard guarantees further festival bookings. But at home and overseas alike — French release is scheduled for early 2013 — it’s hard to see this blandly-titled, rain-soaked romantic melodrama gaining much commercial traction, despite two strong performances by the female leads.
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Lou received a five-year sanction from China’s official film body thanks to 2006’s politically-charged Summer Palace, and responded by smuggling out 2009’s gay-themed Spring Fever — a surprise winner of Cannes’ Screenplay award — then going to France to make Love and Bruises. That steamy affair premiered at Venice last September but has made little subsequent impact on the festival circuit despite starring A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim. For his speedy follow-up he goes back to China and unites the stars of Summer Palace and Spring Fever, Hao Lei and Qin Hao as Lu Jie and Yongzhao, a photogenic thirtyish couple with a cute young daughter.
In a public playground, Lu Jie becomes friendly with another young mother, Sang Qi (Qi Xi), who one day confides that she suspects her husband of having an affair. It emerges that the “husband” is none other than Yongzhao, and that Sang Qi is just one of a string of mistresses — including twentyish Xiaomin (Chang Fangyan), whose car-smash death begins proceedings on an arrestingly spectacular note. The exact circumstances of Xiaomin’s demise constitute the chief “mystery” of the title, though Lou and co-screenwriters Mei Feng (who also worked on Summer Palace and Spring Fever) and Yu Fan haven’t exactly concocted a brain-teasing conundrum with a script apparently based, according to the opening titles, on an “online diary.”
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Of course, the real “mystery” which concerns Lou and company is the essential unknowability of other people, even our nearest and dearest, as the meek Lu Jie discovers to her shock and dismay. Hao is sympathetic and believable in a demanding role, and her scenes with the livelier Qi takes us right into the heart of what turns out to be a decidedly unusual relationship between two women who love the same man. Not that Yongzhao is such a prize catch on this evidence: good-looking and professionally successful as he may be, he’s a duplicitous hot-head capable of repellently extreme violence (including violence of a sexual nature) — in a picture which, from the very first scene, can’t be accused of flinching from depicting the worst of human behaviour.
Zeng Jian‘s camera work — often hand-held or Steadicam — makes the most of a variety of mostly unappetizing urban settings in China’s fourth city, Wuhan, an industrial metropolis that’s been underused as a film-location in comparison with Shanghi and Beijing. Peyman Yazadian‘s score, meanwhile, ladles on tinkling piano for poignant interludes and sonorous strings for the more dramatic sequences — many of which take place in drenching downpours of biblical proportions — underlining the conventional nature of this competently-made but ultimately underwhelming enterprise.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard – Opening Film), Feb. 17, 2012.
Production companies: Dream Author; Les Films du Lendemain; in co-production with Arte France Cinema and Wild Bunch
Cast: Hao Lei, Qin Hao, Qi Xi, Zu Feng, Chang Fangyuan, Zu Feng
Director: Lou Ye
Screenwriters: Mei Feing, Yu Fan, Lou Ye
Producers: Nai An, Kristina Larsen
Director of photography: Zeng Jian
Art director: Peng Shaoying, Du Luxi
Costume designer: Linlin May
Music: Peyman Yazdanian
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch, Paris
No rating, 98 minutes.
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