A tissue-paper character study that buckles under the weight of its unimpeachably noble intentions, “Lotus” makes a committed, courageous plea for freedom of expression in totalitarian China, only to compromise that message with markedly tentative filmmaking. Evidently a passion project for freshman female multihyphenate Liu Shu, whose efforts even extend to designing the costumes, this episodic tale of an independent-minded schoolteacher gradually undone by her own unpopular principles bowed in Critics’ Week at Venice, but the film is too wan and literal to travel beyond regional sectors of the festival circuit, where it can softly preach to the choir.
Per press notes, the helmer calls the pic her “anguished cry for China’s defeated youth,” but her drably televisual treatment conveys little sound or fury in following the title character (Tan Zhuo, appealing if seemingly over-rehearsed) through a series of run-ins with unyielding authority figures. Fired from her rural teaching post for veering from the syllabus, she finds no more freedom as a journalist for a government-toadying magazine. Reduced to waiting tables, she is exploited in various capacities by patriarchal menfolk, as Liu’s outlook turns bleaker than the washed-out digital lensing.