Found & Lost (Cong Cong): Beijing Review

Beijing Film Market
An over-long historical drama treading lightly on history and character development.  

Decades-spanning drama explores a young woman's reunion with her estranged father and her recollections about life in politically tumultuous China from 1959 to 1989.

At a much-reported panel at the Beijing International Film Festival last week, Oliver Stone spoke about Chinese filmmakers not making films about the Mao Zedong-backed Cultural Revolution. He's wrong: In recent years there's been a constant trickle of films exploring that decade-long catastrophe, which set China back for a generation and altered the national psyche forever . The correct question to ask, in fact, is how that part of history is represented on screen.

Having emerged from the Chinese government's black list in the 1990s to becoming the country's most officially celebrated filmmakers, Zhang Yimou will provide his answer next month with his state-sanctioned Coming Home: The film will open in China on May 18 after its world premiere as an out-of-competition entry at Cannes. But a swifter response could be found just a day after Stone's outburst at a sparsely-attended screening at the Beijing festival's film market: Zhu Xiaowei's modest-budget, independently-produced Found & Lost deals less about the legacy of China's political upheavals from the 1950s to the 1970s-- as Zhang Yimou said he would-- but is actually a showcase of lives being led during that epoch, complete with corrupted cadres capitalizing on the chaos to fulfill their desires.

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Not that Found & Lost goes all out in bringing the excesses of that horrifying epoch to the screen. Given the stringent censorship regime it had to conform to, the film has pulled a lot of punches. There are no depictions of show trials as in Chen Kaige's Farewell to the Concubine or the entire unraveling of one's existence in society with Zhang's To Live, two films which have remained unreleased in the country despite their directors' transformation from pariahs to state-sanctioned figures. Here, producer-director Zhu Xiaowei's young female protagonist, Ling (Jia Yumeng), gets off lightly throughout the decades for her original-sin of being the daughter of an exiled Kuomintang military officer, with a scuffle and a retort, she's able to protect her chastity and integrity against her scheming supervisors. What's lost was hardly her dignity, but the odd opportunity to escape rural boredom or have her novel (about the ravages of the Cultural Revolution) published.

It's perhaps ironic that it's in a meeting about the latter that Ling was chastised for her "unreal" depictions of suffering and pain during that decade of Maoist purges. For all its small steps of boldness for tackling Cultural Revolution excesses, Found & Lost is indeed unreal. The pallid narrative undermined further by protracted conversational set-pieces, and a flashback structure proving to be as confusing for the viewer as it is exacting for the production team (when, for example, a sequence set in 1989 features a state-of-the-art airport filled with flat-screen TVs and self check-in machines). With its modest budget reflected in the just competent production values-- expect no wide shots of cities transformed into the past by CGI-- it will take niche Chinese-themed programs to buy into Found & Lost's mildly-mannered, treading-softly aesthetics.

The film's title refers to the relationship between Ling and his father (Taiwanese veteran Chang Kuo-chu), from which she has been separated since she was born in 1949. The film begins in 1990, when she is seen breaking down at a telegraph office after wiring a message to her father. Barely a minute has passed that the narrative again zips back in time, this time to March 1989 when Ling was at the Shanghai airport greeting her father for the first time. As the pair spend their time together during the next few days, the story zips in between episodes of the present (amidst vague discussions about life and drawn-out arguments about their different worldviews) and the past.

Ling's recollections are episodes marked decades apart, each of which seemingly employed to mark a different epoch in the People's Republic, which was established in the same year Ling and her best friend Jianguo (Liu Yindi)-- "Building the Nation" in Chinese-- were born. In 1959, she is a child living on limited means with her grandmother, as the country contends with the economic problems brought about by the (unseen and unmentioned) Great Leap Forward movement; in 1969, as the Red Guards mount anti-intellectual pogroms across China, Ling gives up life in the city to join the masses of "educated youths" rescinding their academic pursuits to work as farmhands in the rural hinterlands-- a spell in which an official told her (and then attempts to blackmail her) about the existence of her Taiwanese military-officer father.

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And then there's 1979: As China is set for open-door market reforms and its leaders still trying to ignore the damage caused by Cultural Revolution, Ling's autobiographical novel is classified by her superiors as "negative" material not appropriate for publication. The impact of the blow is further heightened by a tragic message from the frontlines of the Sino-Vietnamese War, news which finally condemned Ling to life on her own, until 1989, when her father becomes the first group of Taiwanese exiles officially allowed to return to mainland China to visit relatives. Unsurprisingly, that one epoch-defining incident in 1989-- the Chinese government's bloody clampdown on the pro-democracy student movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square-- was not mentioned even in passing. This, instead of the Cultural Revolution, is actually the one historical incident that cannot speak its name in China today.

For the absence of gritty real-life cruelties in the years covered in the film, the attempt in Found & Lost to address so many historical events in 20th century China is ambitious: Unfortunately, the finished product has proved to be a sprawling enterprise. The near three-hour runtime is certainly unnecessary, with the modern-day exchanges between Ling and her (strangely unnamed) father depicting quotidian life-- an argument about a lost wallet, a fixing up of a curtain in real time-- never really revealing that much more about the two characters' inner nature. The constant jumps in time also jolts the narrative, rendering empathy with either Ling or her father very difficult; weighed down by an expansive structure, Found & Lost needs to shake off a lot of its flab in order to discover the rhythm resonating its epic ambitions.

Venue: Beijing Film Market, Apr. 19, 2014

Production Company: Eye Film Studio

Director: Zhu Xiaowei

Cast: Jia Yumeng, Chang Kuo-chu, Liu Yindi

Producer: Zhu Xiaowei

Screenwriter: Zhu Xiaowei, Zhu Lin and Zhao Yuanzhen, based on Zhu Lin's novel Abiding Love

Director of Photography: Ji Wei

Editor: Zhu Xiaowei

Music: Hu Mengzhou

International Sales: Eye Film Studio

In Mandarin

160 minutes

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