Six years after angering Chinese censors with his sexually and politically raw Cannes entry “Summer Palace,” Lou Ye makes a shrug-worthy official return to mainland filmmaking with “Mystery.” An intriguingly lurid but oddly uninvolving tale of lust, deception, jealousy and murder that loses tension and credibility even as it springs twist after twist, this mopey potboiler reps a banal reminder of the stupidity of taking up with two hot-headed women simultaneously. Lou’s fans may be buoyed by the picture’s strong narrative thrust relative to his prior few outings, but not enough to make “Mystery” a must-see beyond fests.
Freed from a five-year filmmaking ban imposed by the Chinese government in response to 2006’s “Summer Palace,” Lou no longer seems interested in stirring controversy at home; apart from one or two plot points that briefly touch on China’s patriarchal tradition and one-child policy, this tortured triangle could be set more or less anywhere. And following the dramatic inertia of his two most recent projects, 2009’s stealth mainland project “Spring Fever” and last year’s Paris-set “Love and Bruises” (which could easily serve as the new film’s title), there are initially promising signs here of an invigorated filmmaker at the helm.
Opening with a brutal car accident set, like much of the picture, in an oppressively torrential downpour, “Mystery” winds backward in time to gradually but purposefully reveal the particulars of its convoluted premise. Lu Jie (Hao Lei, “Summer Palace”) has built a comfortable and seemingly happy life in Wuhan with her husband, Yongzhao (Qin Hao, “Spring Fever”), and their young daughter. But one afternoon, while visiting a cafe with her girlfriend Sang Qi (Qi Xi), Lu Jie spies Yongzhao leaving a nearby hotel accompanied by another woman, Xiaomin (Chang Fangyuan).
Following a silent pursuit and a quick cut to black that doesn’t bode well for anyone onscreen, Lu Jie begins a quiet campaign of manipulation and harassment in an attempt to force her husband’s dirty little secret out into the open. As the screenplay (by Mei Feng, Yu Fan and Lou) soon makes clear, Xiaomin isn’t the only other woman in Yongzhao’s life, sending an already overwrought story into a maelstrom of implied bigamy, blackmail, child endangerment, bone-crunching violence and punitive sex.
Working with d.p. Zeng Jian, Lou employs a characteristically rough, fragmented visual style marked by darting camerawork, jarring edits and an overall sense of physical disorientation, augmented by the use of multiple camera formats (mostly HD, but with some 35mm and limited DV as well). Yet rather than bringing the audience into deeper intimacy with the characters, the jangly aesthetic creates a distancing effect that only highlights the film’s preposterous narrative formulations, suggesting a watery soap opera in neorealist drag. Frankly, there’s more than one way to play this particular set of contrivances; given that this is the latest of Lou’s China-Gaul co-productions, “Mystery’s” two-timing plot almost begs to be remade as an upbeat French farce.
Doing their utmost to lend authenticity and ballast to the contrived scenario are the actors, chiefly Hao (“Summer Palace”) as an embittered wife who needn’t raise her voice in order to seem dangerously unhinged, and Qi as the friend who conceals secrets of her own beneath a seemingly kinder, more open manner. Sporting a thin mustache that completes his portrait of an unfaithful sleaze, Qin (“Spring Fever”) can’t do much with a character for whom pre-emptive castration would seem the only viable road to redemption.
Soundtrack is dominated by a continual ironic refrain of “Ode to Joy.” Despite the handheld look, the visuals look more polished than grungy, dotted with occasional scenic views of Wuhan. Most of the modest budget seems to have been spent on rain.